PoliGraph: Emmer’s public sector salary claim inconclusive

During a debate in Golden Valley, Tom Emmer put public sector employee salaries in his cross-hairs.

“On average, a person who works in the private sector in a job similar to that of somebody who’s working in the [public] sector is making on average 30 to 40 less,” the Republican gubernatorial candidate said on Aug. 26, 2010.

When it comes to national averages, he’s correct. But a closer look at these numbers tells a different story.

The Evidence

Emmer’s office clarified that he’s talking about total employee compensation, not just salaries. He also is speaking of state and local employees, not federal workers. When overall compensation, including benefits, is taken into account, private sector employees make about $27.73 an hour while public sector employees make about $39.81 an hour, according to the most recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So overall, public sector employees make about 43.6 percent more in total compensation.

However, these numbers can be misleading because they include wages and how much it costs employers to provide benefits. For instance, a public sector worker is paid an average of $26.25 an hour. On top of that, it costs the government an additional $13.56 on average to cover health care, paid leave and other benefits — for a total of $39.81 per worker.

So, it’s useful to look only at hourly wages and salary. On average, private sector employees made $19.58 an hour. Meanwhile, public sector employees made $26.25 – about 33 percent more than private sector workers.

Emmer’s essentially on the mark when it comes to national averages for public and private sector employment. Still, his statement is misleading for several reasons.

First, he implies that, job for job, public sector workers make 30 to 40 percent more than private sector employees. That’s not necessarily true. For instance, the average state government computer programmer makes $29.70 an hour while the average computer programmer working at a private firm makes an average of $36.40 an hour. And a lawyer working for government makes, on average, 26 percent less than a lawyer working at a private firm, according to the Federal Salary Council.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stresses that it’s dangerous to compare public sector average pay to private sector average pay because the government work force is more skilled than the private sector work force, so average hourly pay is naturally lower.

The Verdict

When it comes to national averages, Emmer’s correct that public sector employees make 30 to 40 percent more than their private sector counterparts. But his claim is misleading because he implies that this rule works for job-to-job comparisons; in fact, there are plenty of private sector jobs that pay more than public sector jobs. His claim is inconclusive.

SOURCES

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employer Costs for Employee Compensation – March 2010, accessed Aug. 26, 2010

Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2009 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates by ownership: State government, including schools and hospitals, accessed Aug. 26, 2010

Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2009 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates by ownership: Cross-industry, private ownership only, accessed Aug. 26, 2010

Office of the Legislature Auditor, State of Minnesota: State Employee Compensation, Feb. 3, 2000, accessed Aug. 26, 2010

The Federal Salary Council, Memo: Level of Comparability Payments for January 2011 and Other Matters Pertaining to the Locality Pay Program, accessed Aug. 26, 2010

The Cato Institute, Employee Compensation in State and Local Governments, by Chris Edwards, Jan. 2010

The Heritage Foundation, Inflated Federal Pay: How Americans Are Overtaxed to Overpay the Civil Service, by James Shek, July 16, 2010

Interview, Carl Kuhl, Emmer for Governor, Aug. 26, 2010

Interview, Jim Nobles, Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota, Aug. 26, 2010