CUSHY JOB?

The average salary at the FBI is $37,000

Federal workers are hardly wealthy.
Federal workers are hardly wealthy.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Theiler
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As roughly 800,000 federal employees enter their fifth week of the US government shutdown, many are struggling to make ends meet by raising money on GoFundMe, pawning wedding rings, and working as Lyft and Uber drivers.

Nonetheless, some Americans don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned. 

Pampered Federal Workers Don’t Deserve Anyone’s Pity,” reads one editorial in Investors Business Daily, the conservative paper that covers stock markets; “After Trump Gets His Wall Funding, He Should Fire The TSA,” reads another. In a tweet, Republican pundit Jen Kerns dubbed federal workers “paper-pusher bureaucrats,” who “didn’t have to forgo their 4-5% pay increases while Americans were laid off many years.” She added, “Sorry!”

This message is ignoring the fact that many federal workers, especially highly skilled ones, are paid significantly smaller salaries than their counterparts in the private sector, as well as many state and municipal workers. Conservative think-tanks have argued that when benefits, job security, and number of hours worked are taken into consideration, federal employees are better compensated than the average. But those offsets aren’t helping pay the bills right now.

How US government pay works


The US civil service is the country’s largest employer, with over 2 million employees, about 500,000 more than work for Walmart. It is also one of the top full-time US employers of people without four-year college degrees: 

About 40% of the federal workforce is affected by the shutdown, which has left several agencies, including the Commerce Department, Housing and Urban Development, and Homeland Security, without a budget. Some of their employees have been furloughed, while others are working without pay.

The federal pay scale, known as the General Schedule (GS), consists of 15 levels, from GS-1 to GS-15. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government’s HR department, “individuals with a high school diploma and no additional experience typically qualify for GS-2 positions; those with a Bachelor’s degree for GS-5 positions; and those with a Master’s degree for GS-9 positions.”

A federal worker at the GS-2 level makes a base salary of $21,121 to $26,585 per year, or just over $10.12-$12.74 per hour, close to the minimum wage in many states. An employee at the GS-5 level earns a base of between $28,945 and $37,630 per year, and at the GS-9 level, the annual base salary runs from $43,857 to $57,015.

Those numbers can go much higher, depending on experience and agency, plus locality pay adjustments from roughly 15% to 39%. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the stock market watchdog, tops the list, in part, because it competes with Wall Street banks for employees.

Just over half of the federal workforce have salaries that fall within the GS-11 to GS-14 range, or from $53,062 to $116,181 a year.

These jobs can sometimes require a doctorate, as well as years of highly specialized experience, like international diplomacy, familiarity with trade law, or experience curbing disease outbreaks.

The FBI’s clerical staff are hurting

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s employees are working without pay, and they have started a food bank to help each other out. That’s because despite the agency’s reputation as an elite investigative force, the average salary for its nearly 38,000 workers, is a surprisingly low $37,118.

About one-third of the staff, some 13,000 people, are agents; the rest are support staff. It’s the latter who are in most need, Dennis Franks, a retired FBI supervisory special agent who spent 22 years on the job, tells Quartz. “I think the ones who are really suffering are the support staff, the clerical and professional non-agent positions, most of which are in the GS-6, 7, 8 range,” Franks said. 

FBI agents themselves are paid far less than some city and state law enforcement officers with comparable or even fewer skills. To qualify for the job, applicants need a four-year degree and several years of work experience. They are also required to have special skills, such as speaking a foreign language, or in-depth knowledge of accounting, law, or cybersecurity. Before being hired, they must pass a rigorous background check that probes everything from credit history to past drug use. 

New FBI agents enter the academy at the GS-10 level, which begins at $48,297 per year, though those living in expensive cities get mandatory overtime and location adjustments. For example, a rookie FBI agent living in Washington, DC can expect to earn about $84,000 annually, explained Franks. (In 2016, according to OPM data analyzed by FederalPay.org, the average FBI salary was a little over $93,000.)

By comparison, the Suffolk County, NY Police Department does not require recruits to have college degrees. Until the salary scale was reduced last year for new officers, Suffolk cops reached top pay—$139,234—after just five years on the job. Base pay currently starts at $42,000 annually and rises to $111,000 after 12 years.

Non-agents at the FBI earn considerably less. A job listing seeking FBI electronics technicians lists salaries at the GS-7 to GS-9 level ($35,854$57,015, plus locality pay); FBI management assistants are currently being recruited as GS-9s.  

Other federal law enforcement-related agencies don’t pay much better, at least on average. At the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives, the average pay is $30,903; at the Secret Service, the agency that protects the president and investigates counterfeiting and other types of financial fraud, it’s $46,287.

TSA on the front lines

Full-time employees at the Transportation Security Administration, the agency that handles passenger security at US airports, made an average salary of $17,890 in 2017 according to FederalPay.org, which lists a far higher (and incredibly precise) average for 2016 ($52,420.55). Published reports have pegged TSA agent pay at an average of about $40,000; union reps have said some members net about $500 a week with overtime.

Not surprisingly, outside organizations are viewing furloughed government workers as a potential labor pool. The sheriff’s office in Maricopa County, Arizona, formerly run by the notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio, is hoping to recruit TSA employees through Twitter. “Paying as much as 65kyr plus! A pension, tuition reimbursements, & other great benefits!” a recruitment message promises.

This article has been updated to include further description of locality pay.