Federal employees are likely to see a robust increase to their pay, as the Biden administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2022 released May 28 includes a 2.7 percent average increase for civilian federal employees.
“The budget acknowledges the complex and longstanding challenges facing the federal government while reflecting a commitment to innovation, improvement and performance. The federal workforce is composed of dedicated public servants who work to improve the lives of the American people. The budget demonstrates the administration’s commitment to them,” the analytical perspectives for the budget state.
That increase is not quite as high as some legislators proposed at the beginning of the year, which would have included a 3.2 percent increase for feds, but Biden’s proposal does keep the federal pay raise on par with the proposed military increase, which also was set at 2.7 percent.
“While we are supportive that the long tradition of military-civilian pay raise parity has been honored in the president’s proposal, 2.7 percent is simply not nearly enough to compensate for the losses in buying power of federal wages and salaries over the past decade,” American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.
“On average, federal workers are underpaid by 23 percent compared to those doing the same jobs in the private sector and state and local government. We ask Congress to support the modest 3.2 percent increase included in the FAIR Act.”
According to budget documents, the 2022 pay structure also “ensures more federal employees are eligible for a $15 per hour wage,” which falls in line with the Biden administration’s goals to bring both federal contractors and employees above that hourly minimum threshold.
The fiscal year 2022 analytical perspectives also emphasize the changing education demographic of the federal workforce, which has become a central data point in the debate over whether federal employee compensation is on par with the private sector.
A 2017 Congressional Budget Office study found that feds with a high school or bachelors degree often made more than those with the same degree in the private sector, while feds with master’s degrees or higher made less.
That study has been used to argue for freezing federal compensation, rather than providing increases.
But the Federal Salary Council, which compares federal job categories with similar positions in the private sector, calculated in October 2020 that feds are on average paid 23.1 percent less than their private sector counterparts.
On top of the disparity caused by two different methodologies, the difference between the two studies also comes down to the educational attainment of the federal workforce, which is on average much higher than the private sector workforce.
As of 2019, over 30 percent of federal employees had a Masters degree or above, whereas less than half of that percentage had the same educational attainment in the private sector.
Meanwhile, just over 10 percent of feds hold a high school diploma or less, while approximately 35 percent of the private sector falls into that category.
That disparity is also reflected in the kinds of work that federal employees perform.
The highest paid jobs in the private sector — such as lawyers, engineers, scientists, pilots, doctors and administrators — make up about 38 percent of the private sector workforce.
Comparatively, 60 percent of the federal workforce is employed in such high-value jobs.
And that change in government work is also reflected in how federal employees are classified.
In 1950, just one year after the general schedule was created, the most populous GS level was a GS-3, making up over 20 percent of the federal workforce. By 2021 that GS level made up 0.3 percent of the federal workforce, while more than 20 percent of feds were classified as GS-12′s.
The kinds of work performed by the federal government therefore necessitates more highly skilled, and therefore highly compensated, kinds of employees.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.