The Federal Gravy Train

As a commuter in Baltimore, I often tune in to Washington's WTOP 103.5 FM in the morning. WTOP has an all-news format that caters to federal workers, to include opinion pieces sympathetic to their cause. On Tuesday morning, Mike Causey read a column regarding the 2.4% raise received by civil servants working in DC. In the essay, Causey essentially tells his listeners that they should not complain within earshot of non-federal employees, because most non-feds consider themselves fortunate to have jobs and certainly didn't get raises this year. However, Causey's intention is far from attempting to instill a sense of gratitude in federal workers, instead his concern is over the backlash from the general public, during this election year, if they find out what a gravy train government work has become.

About once a year, the major media, which tends to concentrate on world or national events, discovers how much federal workers are paid. Because it requires some in-depth reporting, and time and space, the federal pay story is almost always broken by a newspaper. In 2009 that was The Wall Street Journal and U.S. Today. 

Once the print media has done the heavy lifting, radio and TV pick it up and run with it. Because more people listen and watch than read, TV is where folk in Podunk learn the horrors of federal pay. As in how much those "bureaucrats" in Washington, New York, San Francisco, etc., make.

Last year it was reported that the average federal salary in the Washington metro area was $94,047. And that was before the 2.42 percent raise workers will get this month. Pay in other cities isn't going up as much. But you can see how you're doing by clicking here.
Major media coverage of federal pay, jobs, etc., is especially painful to three groups:
1. People who work for the federal government and
2. People who don't work for the federal government and
3. Members of the news media for whom 2009 was the worst year since the 1340 when the Black Plague hit Europe

Causey goes on to say how the federal workforce deserves the mean salary of $94,047/year because they do technical work and are better educated than the private sector. Perhaps, but here are some federal jobs that are currently listed on USAJOBS.com:

1. Contract Specialist- $120,833-$153,200/year. Requires 4 years experience and a 4-year degree.
2. Supervisory Loan Specialist- $120,833-$153,200/year. No degree required. Must have a minimum of 1 year of experience . 
3. Management and Program Analyst- $80,402-$123,519/year. No degree required. Must have a minimum on 1 year conducting regional studies. 
4. Security Specialist/Officer- $33,477-$96,509/year. No degree required. 
5. Supervisory Industry Economist- $124,637-$183,077/year. 4 year degree required and 1 year of experience.
6. Interdisciplinary Scientist (Project Officer FLU)- $120,830 - $153,200/year. A 4 year degree is required as well as a year of relevant experience. However, work experience can be substituted for a 4 degree. 

I could do Job #6 in my sleep and I can assure you that there isn't a damn thing that I'm capable of that merits $150k/year. Compared to the private sector, these salaries are not only absurd, they're outright detrimental. Detrimental in the fact that prices in the suburbs of DC, like Baltimore, are perpetually inflated, which is a significant burden on the non-federally employed in region. Consider that the starting salary of a Baltimore city police officer is $42,290/year. Not many city police officers can afford to live in safe neighborhoods in the city or Baltimore County, so they have to commute from as far away as York, PA.  Ironically,  federal workers in the BWI metro receive a cost of living bonus due to local inflation, which is largely due to their cost of living bonus. 

To summarize, I think we can safely conclude that Mike Causey has his head firmly lodged in his ass. When food stamps constitute the only source of income for 6 million Americans and banks are more likely to receive assistance than injured veterans , it stands to reason that the gross overcompensation of many federal workers should be pointed out to the public, loudly and often.


  1. It's important to understand that the majority of positions GS-7 and above have specialized experience requirements that are usually only obtained by successive exposure to job duties at a lower grade level (the one preceding the lowest in the range at which the position is targeted). Let's take the first job you listed and look at what it's really saying.

    There are three potential ways one can qualify for this Contract Specialist job.

    1. Have completed mandatory training that qualifies one for a GS-15 position (where the GS scale tops out), possess four years of contracting experience, at least one of which is considered appropriate for GS-14 level work (the preceding grade), AND have a four year degree with enough coursework for a major in the fields they consider related.

    2. Have ever held an equivalent position in the last 10 years (since 2000).

    3. Have been identified by your agency for suitability at the GS-15 level (meaning this would be a promotion, usually within the agency).

    Qualification options 2 and 3 are generally the result of having been continually promoted throughout one's career, which can take quite some time depending on the level at which one entered that particular field. Receiving promotions to higher grades is not automatic and currently requires at least one year at one's current grade to be considered. Additionally, someone entering the federal workforce with a 4 year degree can, with sufficiently high grades, be minimally qualified at GS-7. So let's say that's the applicant we're talking about for options 2 and 3, and that this person's promotion path has been the quickest possible. The path looks like this: Year 1: GS-7; Year 2: GS-9; Year 3: GS-11; Year 4: GS-12; Year 5: GS-13; Year 6: GS-14. In this best case scenario, it takes a full six years for someone to move from entry level to meeting the minimal qualifications for a GS-15 position. Usually this applicant has spent at least 2 years at each grade before getting promoted. Also, each job family is a little different, so the promotion path might hit the even grades as well, meaning an even longer path (I'm not sure why the even grades are left out below 12, but they often are based on the specialized experience requirements).

    Now we can look at option 1, which might allow someone off the street to qualify if they don't have anything in 2 or 3. Again, even this one is biased toward someone with long institutional experience, but it's not impossible for someone to qualify who hasn't worked for the Federal Government before. But the experience requirement is going to take just as long to satisfy.

    One final consideration: if you only meet the minimum qualifications for the job, the odds of you getting the job are probably pretty slim. In all likelihood you will be competing with applicants whose qualifications put them well above the minimum.

    And now an anecdote: I am working for the government now (albeit through a special recruiting program), and even with my 12 years progressively specialized experience in IT and a graduate degree in the same field, I could only manage GS-11, well below what your assessment assumes I should be making. I simply don't qualify at higher levels (yet).

  2. Interesting. I can tick off at least 8 acquaintances that were hired off the street by the federal government in the last year in the BWI MSA. One was a former coworker who they started just south of $100k, which equates to well above a GS-11, I believe. Another acquaintance only has a two year degree and didn't think she was really qualified, but now she's pulling close to $70k to cut and paste files from one directory to another. I kid you not. And I won't even get into what kind of fuckery PTO examiners are capable of. Are you sure you remembered to wear pants to the interview?