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By Eric Stirgus August 18, 2010

Federal employee pay out of control, candidate says

Mike Keown is running for Congress on the belief, in part, that the federal government is growing too big.

Part of his argument comes from some recent newspaper articles about the salaries and benefits of federal employees.

USA Today reported in March that federal employees have higher average salaries and benefits than private-sector employees in more than eight of 10 occupations. On Aug. 10, the newspaper reported that the average annual pay and benefits for federal workers is twice as much as private-sector employees. The August report was picked up by newspapers across the nation and by ABC News.

Initially, we wanted to drop our pens and reporter notebooks and apply for jobs with Uncle Sam. Instead, AJC PolitiFact Georgia decided to dig into the numbers. Do federal workers really bring home twice as much money in salary and benefits as private-sector employees?

Numbers in the newspaper story came from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor.

Keown, a Republican hoping to unseat Democrat Sanford Bishop to represent Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, highlighted one set of numbers from the Aug. 10 article on his Web site.

"It is wrong for the average federal worker today to make more than $100,000 while the average private-sector worker makes less than $70,000," Keown wrote.

Jay Walker, a spokesman for Keown, said the candidate was trying to illustrate his argument that the federal government should consider privatizing more of its higher-paying jobs. Walker could not recall when Keown, a state representative from Coolidge, posted his comments on his Web site.

"They privatize the cheap jobs," Walker said. "Why can't you privatize the more expensive jobs?"

The exact numbers, according to the story, were somewhat more ($123,049) in 2009 for federal workers and slightly less ($61,051) for private-sector workers. The total compensation, however, includes pension benefits, health care insurance and cost of living adjustments.  

USA Today reported that average compensation for federal employees has risen 36.9 percent since 2000. Those numbers were adjusted for inflation. The big difference, USA Today noted, seemed to be benefits. The average federal benefits were $41,791, compared with $10,589 for private-sector workers.

Federal spending -- and the growing federal deficit -- has been a hot issue as the November midterm elections near. Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown made federal employee pay a theme in his successful campaign to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy. President Barack Obama has proposed a 1.4 percent pay hike for federal workers in 2011, the smallest increase in a decade. Congressional Republicans want to stop across-the-board increases entirely, saying it will save the government $2.2 billion.

No one disputes the raw numbers USA Today reported. The BEA and others quoted by USA Today, however, caution that those numbers do not tell the complete story.  

USA Today noted that the analysis did not consider differences in education and experience.

The August report does not compare the salaries of people working in specific federal jobs to similar positions in the private sector. The BEA notes that its private-sector data includes employees of all professions. That means everything from minimum-wage jobs to the salaries of chief executive officers. Federal employees typically work in professional occupations that pay more, such as accountants, attorneys and economists, according to Congressional Budget Office research.

The BEA also noted in recent years that the federal government is hiring more highly skilled workers who tend to make more money. Many of the lower-paid positions, the BEA found, have been contracted out to the private sector.

"This trend contributed to higher average for federal government civilian employees than for private sector employees," the BEA says on its Web site.

Mercer University economics professor Roger Tutterow said cost-of-living and experience must be considered when conducting salary comparisons.

"There are a variety of factors that could account for that difference," he said.

The articles do not indicate whether some factors, such as the high cost of living in the Washington, D.C. area, where many federal employees work, were considered. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley was quoted in USA Today in March as saying any comparison between federal and private-sector employees is faulty because it "compares apples and oranges."

The BEA notes many factors need to be considered when comparing pay and benefits of federal employees to private-sector workers. The statement on Keown's Web site does not mention those factors. Therefore, we rate Keown's statement as Half True.

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