State Employee Wage Growth Flat; Salary Gap Persists

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A standard talking point among some politicians, pundits and anti-government groups masked as think tanks is that government employees make more money than private sector workers.

Public Employee Compensation Survey   Not so, according to the 2010 AFT Public Employees Compensation Survey of state government jobs, which is the only national survey of its kind. In fact, the survey's authors found that private sector occupations that have a comparable match in state government earn at least 20 percent more on average.

The gap between private sector and public sector pay is much larger in some occupations. On average, an attorney working for the government earns 57 cents for every dollar earned by a private sector lawyer; a chemist working for the government earns 65 cents for every dollar earned by a private sector chemist; and a librarian working for the government earns nearly 74 cents for every dollar earned by a private sector librarian. The list goes on.

The survey, released every September, reflects pay rates in effect March 1 of the same year for 45 professional, scientific and related occupations in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

For the first time since the AFT started publishing the survey in 2000, wage growth was virtually flat, up an average of 0.4 percent to $47,245.

"Too many people who are in a position to influence public opinion are recklessly misrepresenting the facts," says Bruce Ludwig, chair of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council and business manager of the Alaska Public Employees Association, referring to news stories, commentaries and stump speeches that point to overpaid state workers as a contributing factor to budget shortfalls. "Comments that government employees make more than the private sector workers who are paying their salaries with tax dollars are nothing more than propaganda intended to foster anti-government sentiment and divide the nation." The only honest way to compare public and private sector salaries, he adds, "is to compare workers in the same or similar occupations, which is exactly what the AFT survey does."

Attorney Evan Goyke, a public defender for the state of Wisconsin, is not surprised by the pay discrepancy in his field. "As a recent graduate, I know what many of my private sector friends make," says Goyke, who graduated from law school in May 2009. "It is the talk of the law school during graduation season."

Goyke, a member of AFT-Wisconsin's Wisconsin State Public Defenders Association, thinks salary comparisons between the private and public sectors are inappropriate anyway. "Government, in my opinion, is not a business," he says. "My job is to fulfill a constitutional right." And while he's fulfilling that right for the poor among us, Goyke is not relinquishing his professional conduct. "I want my service level to be equivalent to the lawyer who makes $400 an hour."

The data, which are provided by state compensation and personnel professionals, regularly show that collective bargaining pays. Jobs whose salaries were negotiated through collective bargaining paid $52,419 on average compared with $38,713 for jobs without collective bargaining. In other words, state professionals with collective bargaining earn an average of 35 percent more than their counterparts in non-collective bargaining states. [Kathy Walsh]

September 2, 2010