Public wages in perspective

The news: In March, Wisconsin legislators passed a bill restricting public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights.

Behind the news: Chicago residents who work in the public sector earn 9 percent more on average than their private-sector counterparts, but the situation is reversed when comparing incomes of only those who hold high-paying jobs, according a Chicago Reporter analysis of census data.

In job categories with an average salary of more than $65,000, private-sector workers in Chicago made 13 percent more than those who work for city or county governments. These jobs include positions such as chief executives, lawyers, judges and physicians.

But public-sector workers made 32 percent more than their private-sector counterparts in jobs with an average salary of $35,000 or less—including jobs as housekeepers, receptionists and file clerks.

The analysis does not factor in health benefits and pensions. Keith A. Bender, an economist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said the Reporter’s findings aren’t surprising and offered several contributing factors. One is unionization, particularly evident in the public sector, that tends to compress wages—raising salaries of relatively low-paying jobs while reducing the wages of higher-paying jobs.

Bender said another factor is political. “There might be a reluctance to pay the head of Chicago public schools—which is a huge organization—at the same rate as a CEO of the same-sized firm,” he said.

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