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Federal workers face paycheck assault

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- A House hearing Wednesday entitled "Are Federal Workers Underpaid?" could be the first step in a new legislative assault on federal worker pay.

Republican House leaders and some conservative experts talked about the need to reduce the pay and benefits of government employees.

"Compensation of private-sector employees has not kept pace with that of federal employees," said Rep. Dennis Ross, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee conducting the hearing. "Our taxpayers can no longer be asked to foot the bill for these federal employees while watching their own salaries remain flat and their benefits erode."

Ross said he wants to gather information about "how best to address the growing pay disparity between the federal civilian and private sector workforce."

Public sector pay has been under fire nationwide. Federal workers are already facing a two-year freeze on cost-of-living increases through 2012.

States facing billion-dollar budget shortfalls have been cutting benefits, furloughing workers and laying them off to make ends meet. In Ohio and Wisconsin, governors are going further and seeking to end collective bargaining rights of unions whose job it is to protect public employees.

Two experts from right-leaning think tanks said that, on average, federal workers are overpaid compared to private sector workers.

James Sherk, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said that federal workers' hourly wages average 22% above those of private sector workers.

Andrew Biggs, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, cited his own report saying federal employees' wages, job security and fringe benefits -- such as paid sick time and retirement benefits -- are 39% above that of the private sector.

But John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, defended government worker pay. Berry said it's not easy or fair to compare federal workers directly with private sector workers, because federal workers are more highly educated and work more highly skilled jobs than private sector employees.

"Even if the system is not perfect, we must reject misleading uses of data that perpetuate the myth that Federal employees are as a whole overcompensated," Berry said. "They are not."

Both Berry and Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, cited a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that reports federal workers are underpaid compared to their private sector peers.

Kelley, in her prepared testimony, blasted the reports from the Heritage Foundation and the AEI that federal workers are overpaid.

"The witnesses who will claim today that federal employees are overpaid have clear ideological views that I believe should raise serious questions about the reliability of their findings," she said. To top of page

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