My office. I affectionately refer to it as The Cubicle Sea. Inspiring, isn’t it?

A recurring theme in the press these days: Damned federal workers raking in the dough at taxpayer’s expense, while the country staggers beneath mounting debt. I’ve seen politicians ranting about how my pay is drastically higher than the private sector, even double the average American wage. For example, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, said in late 2010 that “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year.” Another source claims that the average federal salary is $74,300 compared to a private sector salary of $49,777. I found another estimate of $109-$116, and an estimate that is not as condemning at $67,691. If my only source of information was the news, I would be one of the millions who resent people like me. Since I am a federal employee, however, I know better.

Will the real salary please stand up?

So let’s have it out right here: I was recently promoted and now earn a base salary of $60,274. I have 18 years of federal service behind me, including my service in the Air Force. I have a Master’s Degree. My job requires extensive medical knowledge and extensive legal knowledge, and I make legal decisions to award or not award compensation. So you make the call: would you expect an employee in the private sector with my background to make a whopping $60K? The average salary of a registered nurse is $38K – $73K, the average salary of a paralegal is $26K – $64K, and the average salary of a judge is $30K – $136K. Since I’ve got years of experience behind me, I think I should be compared to the higher end. In fact, since I have to know all three jobs, it might be more accurate to add them together (73+64+136= $273K).

The above paragraph sounds like I am leading you to say I don’t earn enough. But in my opinion, it’s a fair wage.  I don’t think I’m underpaid, because I have great benefits that close the gap between what I earn and what I would expect someone like me in the private sector would earn. I have a little discounted life insurance, 26 days of paid vacation (which I earned after reaching 15 years of federal service), and sick leave. Federal employees have gradual pay increases over time, which is a common practice in the private sector.

I also have the choice to opt in to supposedly discounted health insurance, but I do not buy it because it’s still ridiculously expensive in my opinion. For an average $138.90 every two weeks, my daughter and me can be insured. That’s $3,611 a year. Not worth it since my out of pocket expenses are not even half that without insurance, not to mention federal insurance does not include eye care or dental care, which has to be purchased in addition. So, imho, the famous federal health benefits are no benefit.

A final benefit is for federal employees who live in a more expensive urban area compared to the rest of the nation. Those people get an additional “locality pay” adjustment added to their base salary. I am lucky enough to benefit from this additional resource because I live in Portland, Oregon.

Who are the workers we are comparing?

What is an average federal worker compared to an average private sector worker? The feds don’t hire many equivalents of burger-flippers or janitors – those types of jobs are contracted out to private workers. The federal workforce is filled with people who had to get a college degree before they were even qualified to apply. Think of the number of jobs that exist in our country, and think of how many of them are paid minimum wage or near that, and it’s instantly obvious why the average private sector wage is lower. The comparison is as false as comparing the average private sector worker to the average Boeing employee. Apples and Oranges, people.

How much do federal employees earn?

What I want to know is: who are these millionaire federal employees who are bumping up the average?

Most of us are paid under the General Schedule (GS), which ranges from GS-1 through GS-15. I’m not able to find a good resource that shows the median GS level in the federal workforce. I think it would be revealing. I am at the high end (GS-12), which I would expect from the skill level of my job. I worked previously for the National Weather Service as a GS-11 weather forecaster. Again it was at the high end, and rightfully so, since the NWS is tasked with “protection of life and property” at the behest of our government. Make all the fun you want, but weather forecasters are front and center in the economics and disaster preparedness and response of any country. (To get that job, you need a degree in atmospheric sciences, with courses including Calculus, Dynamics, and Physics.) My father worked 33 years for the U.S. Forest Service, and didn’t manage to crack GS-10 until after twenty years, and even that came about by chance when a new position was created. From my experience, I have only known GS-14s, and GS-15s to be office directors. Thus, in the federal government, directors (CEOs) can earn up to $99,628 (and if they remain in that position for 18 years, they can earn $129,517 annually). Private sector CEOs are more likely to earn 7 times that amount than half of it.

My guess is that the majority of federal employees are GS-5 through GS-9, and I’ll bet there are more GS-9s than any other level. Those workers get a base salary of $41,563 which increases gradually with time. (ok, ok, the GS-9 is a guess. Provide me with a resource of the actual median GS level of federal employees and I’ll revise. I promise!)

There are 2,750,00 total federal employees, 7000 of which are in Senior Executive Service positions, the highest paychecks available to us. SES make up less than 1% of the federal workforce, with average salaries of $120K – $165K. The rest of us are paid under the General Schedule (GS) (plus a scattering of different plans I won’t get into here).  All of these 2¾ million federal employees earn more the longer they hold their current position, as is common in the private sector. For example, if I continue to do my job well (i.e. have no reason for my supervisor to limit my promotion, which can happen), then in another 18 years my base salary will be $78K. Thus by extrapolating, one can assume that some of the GS employees and all of the SES employees are earning six figures. I am missing a lot of data to do an accurate average wage, but the numbers just don’t average out to $120,000 no matter how you slice it. Let’s say the six-figure earners total 27,500 employees (1%); is that enough to pull everyone’s wage up to six figures? Of course not. What if they made up 2%? 5%? 10% Still not enough.

Where do the high numbers come from?

After a little research, it turns out that the “average wage” touted by those who believe we are earning too much, includes things that are not wages at all. Benefits equated to salary include our so-called discounted medical insurance (regardless of whether or not I choose to opt in), the small life insurance policy I mentioned, as well as benefits received by employees who qualify under an old system that is not available to any of us hired in the mid 1980s or later.

Our salary average also includes the retirement benefits paid to past federal workers!

It is misrepresentation of the truth to say that since I work for an employer that provides great benefits, then my wages are really n+1 when the amount that shows up in my credit union account is n. If you want to do that with federal workers, then do that with the private sector too. How valuable are the things we don’t have that some private companies offer, such as fitness club memberships and on-site child care? Smucker’s 100% tuition reimbursement (I’m still paying on my $80K student loan)? How about the 20% free time at Google? And seriously, did I just find out my detractors want to penalize me for choosing one employer over another based on benefits? I call it smart, not criminal.

An example of a stereotypical federal employee

You want one? It’s me. I’m a divorced, single-mom raising a teenager. I’m buried in student loans and mortgage debt, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that my 14-year old vehicle can continue to serve us for a few more years. If not, I’ll have an auto loan too.  We do ok, here, though. We are able to pay for ballet classes for my daughter and school expenses like a new dress for 8th grade graduation, yearbooks, annual photos, new shoes, glasses (she keeps losing them!), and braces. I expect that these daily expenses will mount as she gets older and makes her way through high school. I can pay all the bills and add a few dollars each month toward paying off credit card debt created when I bought airline tickets for my brother’s family so he could visit Mom for Thanksgiving. I donate to a string of charities — not a lot, but I donate. We wear our clothes till they aren’t nice enough to give to Salvation Army, and we wait till movies hit the Academy because tickets are only $4. I wash and re-use plastic baggies. Yes, I do! We have everything we need, but only because we are careful.

So when you need a face to represent the outrageous wage abuses by spoiled federal workers, you can use mine.