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Everything you thought you knew about federal workers’ pay is wrong

Have you ever heard a politician or pundit complain about “overpaid federal bureaucrats?”

If you’ve been paying attention, I bet you have.

It’s a claim repeated so often, it almost seems like common sense. But, if you accepted that “common sense,” I’m here to tell you that everything you thought you knew about federal pay is wrong.

The truth is that multiple credible studies show federal employees are woefully underpaid relative to what they could earn in the private sector for similar work.

According to the most recent pay surveys from the Labor Department, federal workers’ base pay is 52 percent less than similar private sector workers. Locality payments, which vary by location and are paid on top of base salaries, have helped to shrink the pay gap incrementally since they were introduced in the early 1990s. Yet even after factoring in these locality payments, federal employees still earn about 22.5% percent less today than employees outside the federal government doing similar jobs.

To put that into perspective: For every dollar earned by a correctional officer at a state or local prison, that same officer would receive 77.5 cents working at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

And since that’s an average, there are many instances where the salary gap is even larger – especially in big cities where federal salaries are much lower compared to what employers in state and local governments and the private sector pay for the same jobs.

So how did we get to a situation where a federal correctional officer who oversees some of the most dangerous criminals in the nation is paid hardly more than three quarters as much as an officer at a state or local prison down the street? Politicians repeated the falsehood about federal pay so many times, Congress refused to give workers a substantial pay increase for years based on a total fabrication.

Over the past 15 years, the annual base pay raise for federal employees has averaged just 1.3% and bumps up to just 1.7 percent with locality pay factored in – and that includes three years where employees received no pay raise at all.

President Biden has approved a 4.6 percent raise to take effect in January — the largest increase in 20 years — although this won’t go much of the way to closing the 22.5 percent pay gap with the private sector documented by the Federal Salary Council.

And with U.S. inflation reaching a four-decade high this summer, next year’s raise already has been eaten up by higher costs for prescription drugs, groceries, housing and practically everything else.

In August, the advisory body to which I was recently appointed, the Federal Salary Council, recommended a series of actions that would modernize the locality pay system and result in increased salaries for thousands of underpaid federal employees across the country. I’m hopeful that the administration will approve these recommendations without delay.

While these adjustments certainly will help many federal employees, they will do little to address the underlying salary gap between federal and non-federal workers.

With 85 percent of federal employees living and working outside our nation’s capital, raising the pay of federal workers naturally helps local economies by increasing the amount of income these workers can spend in their communities helping to support local businesses, restaurants and more.

Providing federal employees with competitive pay also will make it easier for the government to recruit and retain the most qualified workers. The most recent governmentwide survey of federal employees recorded a steep six-point drop in pay satisfaction over a single year – echoing overall declines in job satisfaction and employee engagement. If we don’t fix the pay disparity facing federal workers, it will be impossible to address staffing shortages that have faced agencies as disparate as TSAVA, and the Bureau of Prisons.

Federal employees perform critical and important work on behalf of everyone who calls this nation home. They’re the doctors and nurses who care for our veterans and the claims representatives who ensure retirees get the Social Security benefits they have earned. The USDA inspectors who safeguard the food we eat and the FEMA specialists who assist disaster survivors. The transportation security officers protecting our skies, the law enforcement officers guarding our borders, and so many more.

They are also Americans just like you – working hard to make ends meet and provide for themselves and their families. They deserve dignity, respect, and fair pay.

Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees

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