Public Servants: I Want You…to Be Political Whipping Boys

The Washington Post has run a good piece today highlighting the criticism that’s befallen federal, state, and local government workforces as politicians, seeking to close alarming budget gaps, accuse government employees of being overcompensated.  And the public seems to have embraced the perception of cushy government service gigs:

Three-quarters of those who were surveyed in an October Washington Post poll said they believe federal workers get better pay and benefits than people doing similar jobs outside the government, and 52 percent said government employees are overpaid.

The Post article reviews some of the available data getting at the question of whether government employees are in fact overcompensated…

Much repeated by Republicans is an August review of Bureau of Economic Analysis data by USA Today. It showed that the average salary and benefits of federal employees had grown faster than that of private employees for nine years running, to the point where federal compensation had reached $123,049 in 2009 – more than twice the level of the average private-sector worker.

Other research suggests that once you adjust the numbers for the fact that government workers tend to be older, more educated and more experienced, they show that public employees don’t do all that well in comparison.

Also complicating the equation is the fact that while government salaries are often lower than those in the private sector, benefits are often better.

The nonpartisan National Institute on Retirement Security found that, on average, total compensation is 6.8 percent less for state employees and 7.4 percent less for local employees than for comparable non-government workers.

Of course this article focuses on government workforces at large, not on attorneys.  And as noted in the above quote block, some research shows that when you control for education level, some highly educated professionals could do much better in the private sector than in the public sector.   So, are government attorneys enjoying bloated compensation relative to their private sector counterparts?  Well, on average: no.

  • As to local government attorneys, NALP’s 2010 Public Sector/Interest Attorney Salary Report offers a national median starting salary figure of $50,000 for prosecutors.  And after 8-10 years of work experience, those salaries increase to almost $76,000.    By comparison, NALP’s 2010 Associate Salary Survey reports that the national median starting salary for law-firm attorneys is $115,000 – more than double the prosecutor salary.  And even the median starting salary at a small law firm (2-25 lawyers) is $72,000 – almost 50% larger than the prosecutor salary.  After 8 years of experience, associate salary is $160,000.  (And remember that by year 8 in practice, many law firm attorneys will achieve partnership status, bringing with it considerable upward income mobility that is not reflected in these data.)
  • Federal attorneys are the highest earning public service attorneys, but their salaries are still generally lower than their private sector counterparts.  Starting salaries for federal attorneys vary based on which agency they work with and other factors, but they generally fall in the $50,000-$75,000 range.  Federal attorneys can pass the $100,000 mark over time, but on average still don’t have the upward earning potential of private sector attorneys.  We do wish to note that federal attorneys typically have impressive benefits packages, and loan repayment assistance helps take financial weight off the shoulders of debt-laden junior attorneys.  Nevertheless, the road through federal service seems to be better described as relatively comfortable, but hardly lucrative.

Finally, we’ll close by noting what we see as the most troubling potential side-effect of the barrage of criticism of public servants: a sort of demonization of government service.  Attorneys in government service are not there for the money.  For the vast majority, there is tremendous satisfaction in working to promote public safety and welfare, national defense, preservation of individual rights, environmental justice, and on and on.  We hope that this is not lost in the rancor as the entire country – including its government attorneys – confronts post-recession fiscal realities.

UPDATE: after publishing this post we were reminded of this vigorous defense of the federal workforce against charges that is it bloated and overcompensated.  The author is Max Stier, the head of the Partnership for Public Service, with which PSLawNet and NALP have collaborated in the past.

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