Five Important Facts About Public Employees

June 18, 2012 at 9:46 am

Our updated report on state and local workers includes some basic facts that are worth keeping in mind as public employees are once again in the news.

1. Elementary and secondary education comprises — by far — the largest share of state and local government employees. Nearly 7 million teachers, aides, and support staff work in the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools.  Protective services, including police officers and fire fighters, is the next largest category, with 2.4 million people.  (See chart.)

2. The public workforce has grown only modestly as a share of the population over the last three decades. Outside of education, the number of public sector workers has remained about the same relative to overall population.  The number of education workers grew relative to the overall population until 2008, when it began to decline.

3. Public-sector workers earn less in wages than their private-sector counterparts. The typical middle-wage worker earns about 4 percent less in the public sector than the private sector.  Low-wage state and local workers, by contrast, earn a small amount more than their private-sector counterparts.

4. Counting both wages and benefits, public-sector workers on average still earn less than their private-sector counterparts, though the gap is smaller. Benefits like pensions and health insurance are larger and more secure for most public employees than for most private-sector workers, but the value of these benefits does not eliminate the gap between state and local employees and their counterparts in comparable private-sector jobs.

5. Labor costs make up a significant share of state and local spending. That’s because providing services is the primary business of states, cities, counties, school districts, and other local governments. Total compensation for state and local workers (including wages and benefits) makes up about 44 percent of state and local spending.

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More About Elizabeth McNichol

Elizabeth McNichol

McNichol is a Senior Fellow specializing in state fiscal issues including methods of examining state budget processes and long-term structural reform of state budget and tax systems.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. Steve S Lowry #

    I know 2 teachers from Michigan who retired at age 50 and 52. They have their own airplane, the best sailboat in the fleet here in Montana, the retirement package provides complete medical, dental, and optical coverage. They travel every year several times to many locations around the world. Another person I know in Alaska did not secure any job until over 30 years of age and now owns 3 houses, at 55 years of age his city job, and his wife’s lab job at the hospital will provide all medical, dental, and retirement income far beyond my income as a veterinarian. Plus my self employment investments of over 30 years in equities, and real estate is worth less than 35% of what I put in. I feel that the public sector is far above any private sector because after a minimum of 25 years they are secure for life.

  2. Zach #

    With due respect, I appreciate the facts and/or charts backing up the points made. However, point #4 lacks both. Can you provide some factual context? When you include pensions and helth benefits, along with wages, exactly where do public employees stand relative to their private industry counterparts?

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