The Underworked Public Employee

December 6, 2012

Overstaffing is a serious problem in government, and the best evidence is a simple empirical fact: Government employees don't work as much as private employees. If public-sector employees just worked as many hours as their private counterparts, governments at all levels could save more than $100 billion in annual labor costs, say Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jason Richwine, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

New evidence from a comprehensive and objective data set confirms that the "underworked" government employee is more than a stereotype. In the past, researchers have measured work time with what are called "contract hours," meaning the time that employers require their employees to work. But many people routinely take work home with them, or skip lunch breaks, or pass up vacation days, or go to the office on weekends. Others may regularly come to the office late and duck out early. Little of this variation is captured by contract hours.

Alternatively, researchers have used surveys that ask individuals how many hours they usually work each week. But answers are susceptible to exaggeration and subjectivity regarding what each respondent defines as "work."

To address these problems, Biggs and Richwine turned to the American Time Use Survey, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics administers to a large and representative sample of American households each year. Interviewers construct a comprehensive "time diary" for each respondent that describes activities that occurred during the entire 24-hour day before the interview. Survey administrators then place each respondent's raw answers into a detailed set of activity categories, one of which is work for a primary job.

  • Using this data, Biggs and Richwine found that during a typical workweek, private-sector employees work about 41.4 hours.
  • Federal workers, by contrast, put in 38.7 hours, and state and local government employees work 38.1 hours.
  • In a calendar year, private-sector employees work the equivalent of 3.8 more 40-hour workweeks than federal employees and 4.7 more weeks than state and local government workers.
  • Put another way, private employees spend around an extra month working each year compared with public employees.
  • If the public sector worked that additional month, governments could theoretically save around $130 billion in annual labor costs without reducing services.

Biggs and Richwine excluded teachers from the full-year comparison because of their naturally shorter work year.

Source: Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine, "Biggs and Richwine: The Underworked Public Employee," Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2012.

 

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