Are California Public Employees Overpaid?

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Public-private pay comparability has become a major political issue in the past year, with some claiming that public workers are overpaid and others claiming they are paid too little. An important aspect of this debate is the difference between federal workers on the one hand and state and local workers on the other. Although federal workers earn higher wages and benefits than comparable private workers, the state-local situation is more complicated. Compared to private workers, state-local workers tend to earn less in wages but more in benefits. The net impact on overall pay is controversial.

The Center on State and Local Government Excellence, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics (CWED) have all released similar studies arguing that the wage penalty and benefit premium for state-local workers either cancel out or tilt in favor of private workers.

While these studies more or less properly measure wage differences, none of them considers the full benefit premium enjoyed by state-local workers. A full accounting of benefits needs to include retirement healthcare, job security, and pension funding using the proper private sector discount rate. After including these missing pieces of the benefits pictures, we find that state-local compensation is substantially higher than previous estimates.

Because state-level data varies widely in quality and availability, it is still difficult to say whether state-local workers are overpaid on a national level. This paper focuses exclusively on public workers in California, a large state with reasonably good benefits data. Because the authors of the CWED report also focus on California, we contrast our methods and results with theirs throughout this paper.

CWED concluded that California public workers are not overpaid. However, we find that CWED's analysis of benefits leads to a substantial understatement of state-local compensation in California. With a more complete accounting of benefits, public employees in California in fact earn up to 30 percent more in total compensation than comparable private sector workers.

Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at AEI. Jason Richwine is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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