"Last year it was discovered that Rhode Island's public employees ranked 4th in average pay, while the private sector ranked 23rd."
Travis Rowley on Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011 in a web commentary
Young Republican chairman says Rhode Island's public employees 4th highest paid in the U.S.; private sector workers 23rd
Amid tough economic times and an alarming deficit looming in state government, the pay and benefits state workers receive have come under increased scrutiny.
In a column arguing that things have gotten out of control in Rhode Island, Travis Rowley, chairman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans, said the pay of the state's public employees is excessive compared with the rest of the country.
"Last year it was discovered that Rhode Island's public employees ranked 4th in average pay, while the private sector ranked 23rd," he said in his posting on a local news website.
We found those statistics interesting. When we e-mailed him asking for their source, he said he found them in a 2009 report -- "Rich States, Poor States," by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. That ALEC report says the information came from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a business-financed research group, but it doesn't indicate which RIPEC report it's referencing or when the data were collected.
We went looking for the RIPEC report that had those numbers. We couldn't find it.
Neither could RIPEC, which searched reports going back to the mid-1990s.
RIPEC Executive Director John C. Simmons said the group even contacted the American Legislative Exchange Council to determine what it was talking about. "We don't know where it came from," Simmons said. "We're going back 10-12 years."
That's the type of analysis the organization would like to do, he said, but added that comparing public- and private-sector jobs is difficult "because the educational requirements are different. Normally public employees have a higher need for higher education, versus private employees."
In an attempt to find our own data, we turned to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), where spokesman Gary Steinberg said the bureau doesn't routinely report such numbers for some of the same reasons Simmons talked about.
"It's not an apples to apples comparison," he said. One reason: the mix of jobs is very different. "In the private sector, one occupation that's very large is cashiers, or retail sales clerks; there's a lot of low-paying jobs that don't exist in the public sector. And in the public sector you have jobs like police, fire and teachers that aren't always comparable" in the private sector, he said.
Another reason, said Steinberg: public-sector pay is likely to be higher because there is less turnover than in the private sector "and you would expect more-experienced employees to have higher earnings overall."
That's why comparing the state-by-state ranking of public- versus private-sector employees is a fairer way to look at the issue.
We ended up doing our own comparison after discovering government statistics available from the Bureau of Economic Analysis at BEA.gov. We found that Rhode Island's state and municipal workers ranked 7th, not 4th, in wages and salaries, behind New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Nevada, New York and Maryland.
Private-sector workers rank 15th, not 23rd.
And when you look at the pay for state workers only, they ranked -- 12th -- behind the six states mentioned above and Alaska, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont.
Meanwhile RIPEC, whose calls to the American Legislative Exchange Council have gone unanswered, was building its own spreadsheet using numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine whether the statistic cited by the ALEC report was ever accurate.
The closest match that Simmons and his staff could find was in 2001, when Rhode Island ranked 24th in private pay. Municipal workers ranked 4th, but that doesn’t include state workers, who ranked 8th.
With their help, we were able to cull comparable numbers for 2009 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' database. The result: combined state and municipal worker pay ranked 3rd; private sector pay in Rhode Island ranked 20th. That's much closer to Rowley's assertion.
(Why the difference in rankings? Ashley Denault, a RIPEC policy analyst, said that may be due to the different ways the two agencies adjust their numbers. For example, we also found that the BEA reports higher numbers for wages in Rhode Island -- about $100 million higher for state and local government wages and $1 billion more in private sector wages paid out in 2009 -- than the BLS.)
*Rowley accurately quoted statistics from a report, but that report cited a source that apparently doesn’t exist.
* Data from two federal databases offer two different pictures, with one set of statistics producing rankings much closer to Rowley's claim than the other.
* Rowley said the data "was discovered" last year, but the report he cites is from 2009.
Correctly citing bad information -- attributed or not -- doesn’t make a speaker’s statement true. Rowley could have uncovered the problem if he had examined the original source material.
But because the latest numbers from one federal database are somewhat close to Rowley’s assessment, we rate his statement Half True.