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Overworked & Underpaid: The Myth of Public Service

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

President Obama said lots of nice things during Public Service Recognition week, and the press was full of predictable odes to federal workers. What a pity. Obama could have used the opportunity to discuss the urgent need to rein in public spending, the explosive growth in government, and the dangers of following the same path that has led Greece to economic ruin. But, he didn’t. Telling unpleasant truths to key constituencies is not one of President Obama’s strengths.

The dedicated, overworked, underpaid public servant is a popular myth that the Obama Administration is keen to foster. What bunk. With annual compensation often as high as $230,000, in reality, public employees are some of the best-compensated, most enriched workers in America. Federal workers are eligible for generous, annual cash bonuses, sometimes as large as $70,000.00. The federal standard, 40 hour, work week is far less than the longer hours worked by those in the private sector. Furthermore, federal workers have the strongest job security and are rarely laid off, or removed for poor performance.

Considering the salary and perks of federal workers, it becomes rather clear that federal government workers are the new fat cats. How do I know? President Obama said so.

In several dozen speeches, this past year, the President has indicated that an individual earning $200,000 is a member of the economic elite. That means that almost all Senior Executive Service (SES) government employees and many federal workers at the GS-15 level are, by the President’s definition, members of the economically affluent.

I will be the first to admit there are some truly exceptional public servants, and I had the rare privilege of working with many of them when I was the Administrator of the U.S. General Administration (GSA). But, these few, dedicated public servants form a thin crust of excellence that disguises a brutal truth. Many federal workers wallow in a mire of mediocrity, and engage in costly, counterproductive bureaucratic activity that does little to advance the nation’s economic growth.

Government jobs come at a high cost, for they must be paid for with taxpayer dollars. Many government workers have overlapping responsibilities that slow the government’s ability to operate. I believe that nearly every federal agency could improve operations, efficiency and capabilities by cutting redundant personnel by 25% or more. But don’t expect that to happen.

President Obama is keen to expand government and has promised to add as many as 600,000 new jobs in the government sector.

Which brings us right back to Greece. The other, little reported story, about the Greek riots last week, was that those rioters were not members of some subversive, radical, extremists group—most were Greek civil servants and union members protesting “austerity measures” which would crimp their government compensation and benefits. There’s only a small leap from our federal government workers, their pay and generous compensation, to the overly generous benefits of the Greek workers.

Consider the subsidized healthcare for U.S federal workers. The top-of-the-line, PPO healthcare plan for Blue Cross/BlueShield for a family of four costs about $900 per month. A federal worker pays about $150/month in pre-tax dollars, and the American taxpayer subsidizes the rest and picks up the other $750 per month.

Vacation time is another area in which federal workers are amply compensated. Ten paid federal holidays, ten paid vacation days, with paid sick leave would be considered robust benefits in the private sector. Federal workers are even allowed to accrue this leave, to the point where federal workers may have as much as one full year’s salary (2000 hours) paid to them when they retire from government. Even as the Pay Czar and other members of congress are criticizing what is seen as excessive, executive, private sector compensation, federal workers can sometimes receive as much as 35% of their annual salary in bonuses each year, These different kinds of bonuses (retention, locality, performance & incentive) supplement other non-monetary compensation such as education and transportation.

President Obama would have been more courageous if he had been more honest when addressing federal workers. He could have warned about the slippery slope of civil service excesses, so recently on display in Greece. Obama could have asked federal workers to take on more responsibilities and prepare the federal government for the cuts to the federal work force that are inevitable. But, he didn’t do that, and instead, kept the myth of the poorly paid, overworked federal worker alive and well.

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