Poll Finds Public's Interaction with Federal Employees More Positive than General Feelings


10/19/10: The most instructive finding in a new Washington Post poll of public attitudes toward the federal workforce is that nearly three in four respondents said their interactions with federal employees over the past year have been positive, NTEU National President Colleen Kelley said today.

 “When respondents were asked about a specific experience with a federal employee, it is clear they understand and appreciate the direct connection between the work of federal employees and the quality of their lives,” said President Kelley. “Being asked a general question in a survey is very different from being asked about the federal employee that helped you with your Medicare issue or the National Park Service ranger that you met on your summer vacation.”

The poll also showed that two-thirds of those who said they received good service from a federal worker believe that federal employees are fairly paid or even underpaid.

As to the finding that 52 percent of respondents as a whole said that federal employees are overpaid relative to the private sector and to the work they do, the NTEU leader said that is a misperception. “If respondents were asked a specific question—such as whether a starting salary of $25,000 is adequate for a Transportation Security Administration Officer—my guess is they would say the officer is underpaid,” said Kelley.

Most experts agree, she said, the definitive data come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which has consistently shown a significant pay gap in favor of the private sector. BLS puts the present pay gap at 22 percent, on average, for similar work performed in like geographic areas.

“Three conservative think tanks have launched an all-out public relations campaign to convince the American people that federal employees are overpaid, but they use false comparisons and flawed data,” Kelley said.

She added: “One of them even maintains the government should not hire the best and the brightest, but should take the leftovers that the private sector does not want. I am quite certain the American people want the very best employees inspecting our food supply, guarding our borders and guiding our national defense.”

Kelley noted another telling number from the newspaper poll—namely, that 57 percent of respondents said they would like to see a relative or close friend just getting out of school pursue a career in government. “My fear is that when people see federal employees being unjustly criticized and targeted for political attacks, it will turn prospective employees off of a career in government,” Kelley said.

“There is a direct link between the work of federal employees and the quality of the lives of all Americans,” Kelley said. “The list of the services provided and contributions made to the nation’s well-being by federal employees ranges from critical border and transportation security to protecting our food and drugs to delivering Social Security and Medicare benefits to ensuring we enjoy clean air and water.”

And, apart from the poll results, Kelley pointed out the size of government has shrunk, in percentage terms, over the past 40 years; in 1970, 4 percent of working Americans were employed by the federal government, a number that has fallen by nearly half despite a sharply-expanding workload—including overseeing reform of the financial regulatory system and the nation’s health care system.