Selected Characteristics of Private and Public Sector Workers

Source: Gerald Mayer, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, R41897, March 21, 2014

An issue for Congress and state and local governments is whether the pay and benefits of public workers are comparable to those of workers in the private sector. In addition, among the ways to reduce budget deficits, policy makers are considering the pay and benefits of public sector employees.

The number of people employed in both the private and public sectors has increased steadily as the U.S. economy has grown. However, after increasing to 19.2% of total employment in 1975, the percentage of all jobs that are in the public sector fell to 15.7% in 1999. In 2013, public sector jobs accounted for 16.0% of total employment.

The recession that officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009 affected employment in both the private and public sectors. From 2007 to 2010, the number of jobs in the private sector fell by an estimated 7.9 million, while the number of jobs in the public sector increased by almost 272,000. Conversely, from 2010 to 2013, private sector employment grew by approximately 6.7 million jobs, while public sector employment fell by about 626,000 jobs. Reflecting the effects of the 2007-2009 recession on the budgets of state and local governments, from 2010 to 2013, public sector employment as a share of total employment fell from 17.3% to 16.0%.

Among all full-time and part-time workers ages 16 and over, the number of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement has fallen in both the private and public sectors. The decline has been greater in the private sector. In 2009, for the first time, a majority of workers who were covered by a collective bargaining agreement were employed in the public sector (8.7 million workers in the public sector, compared to 8.2 million private sector workers). By 2013, the situation had reversed; a slight majority of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement were employed in the private sector (8.1 million private sector workers, compared to 7.9 million public sector workers). In the federal government, except for the Postal Service and some smaller agencies, employees do not bargain over wages.

Among workers ages 18 to 64 who work full-time, differences in characteristics that may affect the relative pay and benefits of private and public sector workers include the following:
• Age. ….
• Gender. ….
• Education. ….
• Occupation. ….
• Union coverage. ….
• Metropolitan area. ….