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Federal Pay Freezes, Firing and Other ‘Myths’ about Feds

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President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of a proposed two-year pay freeze for federal workers was only outdone by the advice of his deficit commission a few days later, recommending even deeper cuts.

It all serves to underscore how federal workers remain in the crosshairs of those advocating government cuts.

Hot on the heels of these recent developments, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, penned an op-ed for The Washington Post on the five persistent myths about federal workers that led this beleaguered group to be what he called “America’s new favorite target.”

Myth #1: Federal workers are overpaid compared to private-sector workers.

“Though some critics question their accuracy, government analyses show that federal employees make on average 24 percent less than their private-sector counterparts,” Stier wrote.

The root of the pay problem, Stier writes, is that the government lacks “a pay system flexible enough to recruit the best talent and pay in accordance with the market.”

Myth #2: The federal workforce is as large as it’s ever been.

The government employs 2.1 million people, excluding the Postal Service, Stier wrote, making it slightly smaller than it was in 1967.

Myth #3: It’s impossible to fire a federal worker.

In the last fiscal year, more than 11,000 federal workers were fired for poor performance, Stier wrote.

However, he doesn’t discount how powerful the myth is, noting even fed managers often believe it. “The primary causes of this misunderstanding,” he said, “are that managers do not feel supported by top leadership and do not have clear performance expectations for their employees.”

Myth #4: Federal workers do mostly meaningless, clerical work.

The vast majority of federal employees work in important administrative and technical fields, and aren’t just “college dropouts archiving triplicates of your tax return,” Stier wrote.

For perspective, 51 percent of federal workers have at least one college degree, compared to 35 percent in the private sector, he added.

Myth #5: Pay freezes would help reduce the budget.

“History has taught us that arbitrary, broad hiring and pay freezes don’t return significant cost savings,” Stier wrote.

If the government reduces the workforce by 10 percent, which is about 200,000 workers, it would save about $20 billion each year, which is about 0.5 percent of the federal budget, he added.

Federal workers have often been a punching bag, with one notable black eye coming in a Washington Post poll in Oct. showing a majority of Americans – 52 percent – believed federal workers were overpaid.

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