WASHINGTON — — The "average" federal employee salary is nearly $78,500, an amount that has risen by about $1,800 in the past two years despite a general freeze on salary rates, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
As of September, OPM reported last week, the average salary for a full-time, permanent, non-seasonal position was $78,467. The comparable figure for December 2010 was $76,701. The latest available median salary is $74,714, up from $69,550 in 2010.
Federal employees did not receive the traditional across-the-board January raises in 2011, 2012 or 2013. The budget proposed by President Barack Obama last week calls for a 1 percent raise in January 2014.
While many federal employees have received no increases since January 2010, individual raises still can be paid to employees, if eligible, upon promotion, for performance, or upon completing waiting periods used in grade- and step-type pay systems.
Hundreds of thousands of employees, meanwhile, face the partial loss of salary from furlough days as part of sequestration. Some will face up to 14 days.
Also, starting this year, new employees must generally pay an additional 2.3 percent of salary toward their retirement benefits, and proposals are pending in Congress to raise the required contribution by all employees by as much as 5.5 percent of salary.
Employees covered by Social Security also had that portion of their payroll tax increased this year along with other workers when a two-year decrease of two percentage points expired.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has jurisdiction over the federal workforce, said that "our spending priorities are completely out of whack when many employees are being furloughed while at the same time salaries have been increasing during a so-called pay freeze.
"These increases are driven by automatic, tenure-based pay hikes that are in no way tied to merit or performance," he said in an emailed statement.
The "average" federal employee salary is at the center of a long-standing controversy over federal pay versus private-sector pay. Federal employee groups argue that comparisons of average salaries are misleading because federal workers tend to be older, more experienced, more educated and more concentrated in professional-type jobs — all of which contribute to higher salaries. The Obama administration has made a similar argument in its recent budget proposals.
"The federal government employs lawyers, doctors, scientists, IT experts, managers and workers who manage contractors, many of whom could earn far more in the private sector but who have chosen public service," National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said in a statement. "At the same time, there also are a great many federal employees at the lower end of the pay scale. For example, nearly half of NTEU IRS members work in positions at Grades 2 to 8 on the General Schedule (GS) pay system."
"Most of these employees work full-time, yet thousands of them earn far less than what can reasonably be considered a middle-class salary," Kelley said. "These IRS employees and other federal employees have not had a pay raise in more than two years, yet the cost of everything they buy is increasing."
Jacque Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in an email, "The gradual increase in average salary reported by OPM reflects the movement of employees into executive, management and other higher graded positions, mostly due to promotions.
"There are 4,744 more employees making $140,000 or more than there were a year ago, while there are 14,004 fewer federal employees in the GS-5 to GS-9 range. Most of our members are in the GS-5 to GS-9 range and earn anywhere from about $31,000 to $68,000, depending on what part of the country they work in."
The government's own method of measuring pay for jobs it deems comparable shows workers earn substantially less than they would in the private sector. Other studies, using different methods and different sets of data, have reached the opposite conclusion.
The average federal worker was 47.1 years old with 13.8 years of government service in 2012. Less than 1 percent had no high school diploma, 26 percent had just that diploma, slightly less than half had at least a four-year college degree and the rest had some sort of post-high-school education.
The concentration of federal employees in professional and administrative positions also has increased in recent years, compared with blue-collar and other lower-paying federal jobs.
The latest count put the number of full-time, permanent, non-seasonal federal workers at 1,850,311. That comes to 5.894 federal employees per 1,000 Americans in fiscal 2012, down slightly from 2010 and 2011, but still above the 5.497 number of 2008.
The report does not include temporary, seasonal or part-time employees, whose inclusion in other types of counts puts the total federal workforce at around 2.1 million. Even those counts commonly exclude certain categories of employees, most numerously the more than 500,000 in the self-funding U.S. Postal Service.