Report | Unions and Labor Standards

Are Wisconsin public employees overcompensated?

Briefing Paper #290

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Press release

This paper investigates whether Wisconsin public employees are overpaid at the expense of Wisconsin taxpayers. The research is timely. Newly sworn-in Gov. Scott Walker believes that public employee compensation must be cut to make it comparable to private sector pay at the state, local, and school levels. Walker is promoting public employee pay cuts, changes in collective bargaining laws, major benefits reductions, and a possible decertification of public employee unions as the antidote to the alleged overpayment of public employees in Wisconsin and the key to reducing the state’s budget deficit (Bergquist and Stein 2010).

However, the data indicates that state and local government employees in Wisconsin are not overpaid. Comparisons controlling for education, experience, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and disability reveal that employees of both state and local governments in Wisconsin earn less than comparable private sector employees. On an annual basis, full-time state and local government employees in Wisconsin are undercompensated by 8.2% compared with otherwise similar private sector workers. This compensation disadvantage is smaller but still significant when hours worked are factored in. Full-time public employees work fewer annual hours, particularly employees with bachelor’s, master’s, and professional degrees (because many are teachers or university professors).
When comparisons are made controlling for the difference in annual hours worked, full-time state and local government employees are undercompensated by 4.8%, compared with otherwise similar private sector workers. To summarize, our study shows that Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8% less in total compensation per hour than comparable full-time employees in Wisconsin’s private sector.

These compensation comparisons account for important factors that affect earnings, the most important of which is the educational levels of public employees. When comparing public and private sector pay it is essential to consider the much higher levels of education required by occupations in the public sector. As a consequence of these requirements, Wisconsin public sector workers are on average more highly educated than private sector workers; 59% of full-time Wisconsin public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared
with 30% of full-time private sector workers. Wisconsin state and local governments pay college-educated employees 25% less in annual compensation, on average, than private employers. The compensation differential is greatest for professional employees, lawyers, and doctors. On the other hand, the public sector appears to set a floor on compensation, which benefits less-educated workers. The 1% of state and local government workers without high school diplomas earn more than comparably educated workers in the private sector.

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