Study reveals wage discrepancy between public, private sector

Government employees are being paid less than workers in the private sector despite their higher education levels, a study published by the University’s School of Labor and Employment Relations shows.

The study was published Monday and compared earnings, benefits and other impacts while controlling for factors like education and demographics. Findings showed that public sector employees had total incomes 13.5 percent lower than those of workers in the private sector. Yet the study also found that government workers with bachelor’s degrees and higher earn 32 to 40 percent less in wage and salary income than private sector workers with bachelor’s degrees.

Robert Bruno, lead researcher and director of the school’s Labor Education Program, said he was trying to determine whether assumptions that state workers are overpaid were true.

“In this report, we really wanted to address a problematic feature of the public discourse about the cost of public sector workers and about state and municipal budgets,” said Frank Manzo,  research associate. 

Manzo said they conducted the study in response to negotiations that had been going on in January between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Council 31 and the state. The union, which includes about 35,000 state employees, and Quinn administration negotiators reached a tentative agreement on Feb. 28.

Scott Adams, director of Research and Employee Benefits at AFSCME, said government employees choose to work in the public sector for job security and the sake of the public’s well-being.

“There’s a perception out there that people try to disseminate that we’re highly paid and we don’t work hard and we have benefits nobody else has,” Adams said. “(Government workers) know they may not be making as much, but they know they can retire with dignity.”

At the University, the Service Employees International Union Local 73 are currently on strike until Wednesday, which Bruno said will “remind everyone of the difference their labor makes.”

“The campus building and service workers are perhaps the least appreciated and valued of all the university’s employees,” Bruno said. “Universities are large employers with sizeable resources that too often undervalue the hard work of the people who humbly serve the daily living needs of the students.”

Despite the discrepancy in earnings, the study discusses the direct and indirect contributions government workers make to the Illinois economy, such as their impact on the state’s GDP.

It notes the positive gains from these jobs, such as the number of lives saved by firefighters or the numbers of students educated by teachers, which cannot be quantified but are necessary to the state.

“Now, we’re not saying it’s better than having a less-than-vibrant private sector, but state workers certainly are not the drag on the state economy that they’ve been made out to be,” Bruno said. “In fact, they are a relative bargain for Illinois taxpayers.”

Janelle can be reached at

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