State Employees' Wage Growth Is Flat; Pay Gap Persists

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Rhetoric portraying public employees as an elite, highly paid workforce has ramped up this year, even though data from the AFT Public Employees department reveals that state employee wages continue to be flat.

According to the 2011 AFT Public Employees Compensation Survey, the average salary of the 45 jobs audited was $48,192 in 2011, an increase of 1.8 percent from the 2010 average of $47,331. The increase, while higher than 2010's 0.4 percent gain, is the second-smallest increase since the AFT Public Employees department started collecting salary data for these jobs.

There's no question that public employees have been part of efforts to solve the budget crises during both of the decade's recessions. The department's library of surveys—the first one was released in 2000—shows that state wages, adjusted for inflation, have been flat. Specifically, when inflation is taken into account, the national average salary for state employees in the survey has increased only $1,534, or 3.2 percent, since 2002.

When it comes to the pay rates for government employees, compared with their private sector counterparts, the 2011 findings are consistent with those from previous years: The private sector pays more.

"Knowledge workers—those with high levels of education and professional responsibility—are often at a salary disadvantage when working in state government," according to the survey's authors. For example, on average, a geologist working for the government earns 63 cents for every $1 earned by a private sector geoscientist; an accountant working for the government earns 75 cents for every $1 earned by a private sector accountant or auditor; and an environmental engineer working for the government earns nearly 76 cents for every $1 earned by a private sector environmental engineer.

The report authors emphasize that broad-stroked comparisons of the private and public sector workforces are flawed because "the public sector requires a greater number of professionals and knowledge workers to administer government programs and does not employ as many manual and service workers" as the private sector.

Another perennial finding: Government jobs covered by a collective bargaining agreement pay better than public sector jobs without one. The difference isn't small change. In 2011, jobs with union rights paid on average 36 percent better—or $14,240 more.

The survey, which is the only source for comparative information on state employees' salaries, was released on Labor Day and reflects pay rates in effect as of March 1 for 45 professional, scientific and related occupations in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The data is provided by state compensation and personnel professionals. [Kathy Nicholson]

September 5, 2011