Letter to the Editor: Common Misconceptions in the Public vs. Private Employee Debate

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I have read many columns in the WSJ and other media outlets and would like to point out some misconceptions that contribute to the confusion about the public versus private employee discussion.

First, there is a considerable difference between State/local workers and federal workers that is not often clarified. Federal workers hired since 1988 fall under the FERS system (see www.opm.gov). It is drastically different from the older civil service retirement system (CSRS) that is used for many media comparisons and not at all like state, county and municipal employee pensions.

For federal workers hired since 1987, retirement pensions constitute less than one third of their total retirement with Social Security and their own savings making up the difference. A person hired today would have a minimum retirement age of 57 and would need 30 years of service to retire on an immediate pension. The pension portion is based on 1% of their highest three years of service times their length of service. For an example, many federal science agencies require a minimum PhD for a supervisory position. Most PhD’s usually take 4 years for the bachelors, 3 more years for the masters and 4 more years for the PhD, usually making them about 30 years old before they get their first full time job. In almost every case, those individuals are retiring at 65 or older.

Second, those same jobs are non union and furthermore, exempt from the Fair Labor Standards act, therefore salaried and do not get overtime or compensatory time, just like the private sector. The starting salary is usually a GS-11 and just 20 years ago, a GS-11 starting salary was 28k per year. How many individuals do you know that earned a PhD would take a job for $28k per year? Today, a minimum of a bachelors degree is required for a GS-5 position as a technician and the current starting salary is 31k per year, low enough for a family to qualify for food stamps in some locations as some of older veterans with families have found out.

To the media, when you say “public employees” much of the public perceives federal employees with state, county and municipal employees. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is not meant to contradict what I also perceive as an undue public burden by state, county and municipal employees and their onerous union contracts, but rather an attempt at making sure the facts that separate federal civilian employees from the rest of “public employees” are clearly understood.

Tom Sklebar
Montpelier, ND

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