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.


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

  • Annie G.

    Actually, the data presented here should lead to the conclusion that Emmer’s claim is false. He says that “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.”

    He’s saying that when you compare pay for a SIMILAR JOB, the public employee makes 30-40% more.” Clearly not.

  • Frank Jaskulke

    I agree with Annie G. This should be labeled false. While average pay and benefits is higher, as your article notes, public sector workers tend to have more education, which is correlated with higher payer.

  • I would label it false. Not to mention his absurd claim of “gold plated health care plans” for public sector employees. My public sector plan has huge premiums, huge deductibles, huge co-pays, a limited formulary, low lifetime payout. And it isn’t even the minimum coverage option.

  • MR

    I also thought that public sector workers tend to be older and have more experience, therefore also increasing pay.

  • Garrett

    I agree with the other commenters. Emmer is clearly saying that when comparing similar jobs, the public sector is more lucrative. That statement is false as you have demonstrated in your analysis.

  • SLJ

    I have worked as a scientist at the University of Minnesota for almost 30 years. In addition to my B.S. degree I have acquired skills in many areas from animal surgery to basic biochemistry to electron microscopy. These have contributed to many publications which help win grant money and (hopefully) advance scientific understanding. In addition I have had to hone my people skills to work with a variety of people from all over the world and now a new generation of students with different ideas on how things should be done. I frequently have worked nights, weekends and holidays for no extra compensation. I have worked in spite of the 1-2% GROSS pay increases per year, the norm at the U. I noted gross pay because each year my health insurance contributions go up, along with the cost for the parking (currently about $120 per month) . I also noted gross because this is not 1-2% above a step increase or cost of living adjustment. My gross salary, about average for the many other employees in my job classification, is in the low $50k range. The usual estimate is that U scientists make about $10k less than industry. Does that sound like an excessive salary? Does anyone in industry have info to say I’m getting paid 30-40% more than you?

  • Jamie

    I agree with the others. This should be called FALSE based on the analysis.

  • BJ

    Wow I think it is true, and I think Emmer is a loser.

    “However, these numbers can be misleading because they include wages and how much it costs employers to provide benefits.”

    Why would you not include Total pay in figuring out pay difference?

    Seems like you tried to prove him false and could not so you cooked the numbers to make it look misleading.

    Again I am not a fan of Emmer.

  • AL L

    The comments about public employees making too much is from the same guy who thinks wait staff at restaurants make over $100,000.00 dollars a year in tips.

    A question: If public employees make less than the private sector why does Mr. Emmer want so badly to become one.

  • Jamie

    Excellent point. And actually, he already IS a public employee. Has been for several years. I’m always amazed at how so many Republican lawmakers and office-holders denigrate public employees as they take and hold public sector jobs themselves and give public sector jobs to all their friends. It’s called hypocrisy.

    Pawlenty and all his cronies in state government (some of the highest-paid public employees) fight against every 2% increase that clerical workers try to get, while raking in millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money themselves (collectively).

  • Elsa Mack

    Why is this inconclusive? It is clear that the actual statement that Emmer made is factually false – if you compare the salaries of public and private sector employees in similar positions, the public sector employee does NOT make more money, and in fact makes less. Seriously, Emmer is either terrible at understanding numbers, or he’s making these gross misstatements knowing that it feeds into the pre-conceived notions of low-information voters who won’t read any actual analysis of his claims. In other words, he’s either stupid or a liar. And frankly I don’t think he’s stupid.

  • Michael McIntee

    Tom Emmer was very clear at the General Mills forum that the 30 to 40 percent figure did NOT include benefits. If you don’t believe me, watch the entire unedited debate here: The “clarification” from his office is really a correction. The claim that Emmer made in the debate is false.

  • Michael McIntee

    Here is Emmer’s quote from the General Mills debate. It is obvious he means just salary, not benefits.

    “Not only do our public employees make on average 30 to 40 percent more than private sector employees in the same positions or similar positions, but then they have health care insurance that’s gold plated health care while people in the private sector are lucky if they’re keeping it. And then you get to the pension aspect. Those defined benefit plans, they get the guarantee of their future while the rest of us if we are lucky enough to have a 401K plan are watching it ride the roller-coaster of the market and we’re either delaying retirement or we’re wondering if we’re going to be able to retire.”

  • Adam Burnside

    I like averages. Did you know that Warren Buffet and I have an ‘average’ net worth of $40 billion? I bet you can guess which one of us brought the average up and which one brought it down!