Federal vs. corporate pay scales: A cartoonist tries to sort it all out

In the end, FCW cartoonist John Klossner can't sort out the economics of federal and private sector salaries, but that doesn't hold him back.

Principles of economics

The heading to my blog posts on fcw.com says "FCW cartoonist John Klossner." I am not sure whether this is to warn the reader not to take the following too seriously or that the linked piece will be entertaining, but I get the feeling that I can't win either way.

It was with this in mind that I approached the topic of federal employee salaries. There has been a tempest recently over whether federal employees -- especially in light of current economic issues -- are being paid more than corporate workers. People have argued about the validity of the various studies, about whether you can compare a federal middle manager to their counterpart in the private sector, and about whether federal employees are generally a better educated community than the private sector at large. I thought that this was the opportunity to rise above my cartoonist's ghetto and offer some real substance.

I threw myself into the research. I read numerous salary surveys. I annoyed various editors looking for comparable figures. I looked at charts. I made charts. I annoyed my federal employee wife with numerous questions about fed pay scales. I went through two pages of Google listings on federal salaries. This led me to a major discovery.

I am a cartoonist, not an economist.

Early on in my search for numbers that would allow me to compare a Pentagon receptionist's salary in 2000 with a midwestern Fortune 500 IT project manager's pay in 2009, I had a conversation with an editor who put it succinctly - "You can't compare apples with oranges." This person was trying to save me time. A lot of time, as it turned out. Hah, I thought. Surely I can compare apples and oranges, and maybe throw in some pears while I'm at it.

It turns out that a cartoonist trying to be an economist is as American as orange pie. For those of you looking here for the in-depth number crunching that will clarify the question of "do federal employees make too much?" I apologize.

But in the midst of all my research, I encountered the following anonymous comment:

"I am not believing what I am hearing here. I am a contractor with a MAJOR international corporation who permanently reduced the salaries of all of us by 5% while laying off thousands. The federals on the other hand were complaining that their pay RAISE was reduced to only 2%. These are people who can bank leave and earn time off for practically everything they do. I am salaried exempt. I get nothing more no matter how much I work and I do not know a single private sector company that allows you to save up leave.... I am currently working with federals who earn salary commensurate with what I make.... You tell me if these people do not enjoy high pay and great benefits that are not available in the private sector. Where else can you be guarranteed a job for life by just showing up every day. I have not had a pay raise in four years, my salary was cut 5% and my health benefits cost me more than they did last year for worse coverage than I had before. If the economy ever recovers I will probably look for another job somewhere else....maybe somewhere that has some sort of retirement plan. I don't have one, but the federal employees do!" (Let’s just say [sic] for the entire comment.)

(As an aside, I want to propose that all "add comments" boxes have an opt-out "sic" button.)

This comment brought a couple thoughts to mind. For one, if the feds have it so good, why didn't this writer apply for a federal position when he or she was entering the job market? When the economy was booming, federal jobs were looked down upon: They didn't pay as well as the private sector, federal employees didn't have access to the latest technologies, and what self-respecting motivated capitalist would want to work in those bureaucratic morasses?

Two, I come from the school that says that one can make numbers support whatever argument they make and, in that light, I'm sure some federal positions pay too much and some not enough. I look forward to a time -- when the economy comes back to life and the natural order is restored and the commenter can once again look down his or her nose at federal employees -- when this person's follow-up post states how unfair it is that private sector personnel are compensated at a higher rate than comparable federal employees.

There is a cute game being played here: Members of the private sector are complaining about the compensation feds make when, in the past, these same people had no respect for these same federal positions. Being a cartoonist, I feel qualified to resort to analogies here. The ant and the grasshopper come to mind. Or the fox and the grapes. The tortoise and the hare.

Or the economist and the cartoonist.

John Klossner