By Erik Wasson
The Obama administration’s chief personnel officer took heat Wednesday from Republicans on the House Oversight Committee who charged that federal workers are overpaid and receiving too many bonuses in an economic downturn.
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy subpanel, opened the hearing by noting that “federal employees on average earned $101,628 in total compensation in 2010, nearly four times more than the average private-sector worker.”
“Our taxpayers can no longer be asked to foot the bill for these federal employees while watching their own salaries remain flat and their benefits erode,” Ross said.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry shot back that
studies showing federal workers earn more than private-sector workers
are misleading and said federal workers should not be denigrated.
By U.S. government estimates, Berry said, federal workers make about 20 percent less than their private-sector counterparts, in a straight job-to-job comparison and when additional factors, including job danger, are factored in.
Berry noted that U.S. attorneys start at a salary of $90,000, compared to $145,000 for first-year law firm associates, while federal cooks make more because most work in prisons under "dangerous" conditions.
He said directly comparing federal to private-worker pay generally is not fair, because private-sector salary averages are driven down by the inclusion of wages for lower-skilled workers like retail clerks and waiters — positions absent in the federal workforce.
“We must reject misleading comparisons that perpetuate the myth that federal employees are overcompensated,” he said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) criticized Berry over the fact that 63 percent of workers last year got some kind of performance award. Berry said these payments for good work averaged less than $1,000.
“These are not the Wall Street bonuses we have heard about,” he said.
Chaffetz shouted back that it is “offensive to many people” that the government would hand out so many bonuses during a rough economy.
Berry said the six-decade-old federal pay system is not perfect and is worthy of scrutiny, as long as federal workers are not being unfairly portrayed.
Republicans have been calling for a five-year pay freeze for federal workers combined with a hiring freeze.
Full Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked Berry if he would work with the Congress to make the Obama pay freeze a “real” pay freeze that also includes step increases within pay grades.
Berry said he would not support that effort because canceling step increases would cause too many federal workers to leave their government jobs for the private sector.
The Obama pay freeze applies to cost of living adjustments but does not apply to automatic step increases within "General Service" levels.
This post was updated at 3:04 p.m.