A friend points me to the November 30 episode of the American Federation of Government Employees’ paid radio show “Inside Government,” in which AFGE Policy Director Jacqueline Simon argues that one big difference between federal employment and the private sector is the lack of pay discrimination. The federal government’s General Schedule pays you according to the work you do, she says, not your gender, race, and so forth.
This affects pay comparisons, since in the data government employment does tend to pay women and minorities better than the private sector. Ms. Simon, who is a member of the Federal Salary Council, believes that one reason studies like mine find that federal jobs pay more that private sector positions is the lack of pay discrimination in the public sector.
If that were the case, you’d expect public employees to report less discrimination. By “report” I don’t necessarily mean to file a grievance, which might be easier or harder in different types of jobs. If asked, you’d expect government employees to say they experience less discrimination and private sector workers to say they experience more.
But that’s not how things actually turn out. Take racial discrimination. According to the General Social Survey, 10.2% of public employees claim they have experienced racial discrimination on the job, versus only 5.6% of private sector workers. Similarly, 8.4% of public employees cite gender discrimination at work, versus only 4.3% of private sector workers. Higher discrimination in government employment holds up even after controlling for differences in the composition of their workforces.
Does this mean that the government actually discriminates more than private sector employers? On one hand, as Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker observed, competitive pressures in the labor market tend to lessen wage discrimination. If public employers feel less competitive pressure, discrimination could survive there longer. On the other hand, public employee unions sometimes engender a culture of grievance, such that public employees might perceive discrimination in circumstances where private sector workers would not.
Which explanation is correct? I suspect the latter, but who can say?