A different look at public vs. private pay

The question of whether state workers get paid more than their private sector counterparts is an old one. And maybe we've been asking it the wrong way.

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    Wayne Carver, a mail carrier in Augusta, Ga., is shown in this 2002 file photo. Are public sector workers paid more than private sector ones?
    Patrik Jonsson / Freelance / File
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Do state and local workers get paid more or less than their private sector counterparts?

That old question has taken on renewed life with the budget and labor disputes raging in Wisconsin and other states. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy question to answer.

As Ford Fessenden notes in a nice set of graphics at the New York Times,one reason is that observers disagree on what “paid” and “counterpart” mean.

If you simply compare average pay and benefits, for example, state and local workers come out well ahead.

But the two workforces differ. State and local workers are more educated, on average, than private ones. About 50% of state and local workers have a college degree, for example, while only 29% of private workers do. Controlling for that reduces the compensation differential.

But then you need to consider other factors as well, such as the generally longer hours and lower job security in the private sector.

Fessenden doesn’t reach a firm conclusion. Some data suggest that public employees are indeed paid more. But some narrower (and therefore more precise or less representative) comparisons show parity (hospital workers) or higher private pay (higher education).

Well worth flipping through the charts if you are interested in this issue.

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