W = Fd

Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine are beating a dead horse in their attempts to demonstrate that public employees don’t work as hard as their private counterparts:

What we found was 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.

We’ve excluded teachers from the full-year comparison because of their naturally shorter work year. But could public-private differences in work time be due to other occupational differences between the sectors? Large differences in work hours actually persist even when comparing workers with similar jobs and similar skills in each sector.

Based on the most detailed and objective data set available, the private sector really does work more than the public sector. This fact may hold different lessons for different people, but our own take is simple: Before we ask private-sector employees to work more to support government, government itself should work as much as the private sector.

They will never convince anyone who’s not already predisposed to agree with them of it. I can already hear the thousands of anguished cries about overworked civil servants.

Let me propose a simple example from physics. Work is measured by the distance moved in the direction of the application of force. If there’s no movement, there’s no work. It’s too easy to confuse being busy with working.

Endless meetings at which nothing is accomplished, endless filling out of forms that nobody will ever look at, and endless reports that no one will ever read are not work. They can keep you very busy, however. This is not a problem unique to government. I have yet to encounter any large organization in which there aren’t any number of people who are very busy and undoubtedly consider themselves overworked who are not actually working in the sense of producing motion. It’s true of companies, governments, not-for-profits, you name it.

15 comments… add one
  • I can already hear the thousands of anguished cries about overworked civil servants.

    With great job safety and in many cases unbelievable retirement plans. Cry me a f*cking river.

    Endless meetings at which nothing is accomplished….

    I’ve made this point where I work rather bluntly. “I work in my cubicle, when I’m in this meeting, I am not in my cubicle.” The idea of going to a meeting and “getting stuff done” is largely a myth at least for the non-managers.

    I have yet to encounter any large organization in which there aren’t any number of people who are very busy and undoubtedly consider themselves overworked who are not actually working in the sense of producing motion. It’s true of companies, governments, not-for-profits, you name it.

    True, as I noted meeting are not where I’m productive….fortunately I there aren’t many meetings. But I think to some extent private entities have more incentive to keep this from becoming too much of a problem and when it does become a problem can deal with it much more quickly. We recently had an issue like this, our IT department had become extremely bloated and was asking for considerable amounts of money. Senior management fired the person in charge and took a bloody hatchet to the department.

    That being said, there are still problems IMO. The law division is growing considerably, and while this might annoy PD…lawyers don’t really produce much of anything. They either protect what you have or they take what other people have. It is really an activity that changes the distribution of the “economic pie” vs. increasing the size of the “pie”. Now, of course this growth could be the result of institutional reasons vs. simply a corporation misallocating resources…maybe.

  • The law division is growing considerably, and while this might annoy PD…lawyers don’t really produce much of anything.

    Patently untrue, as one of my favorite stories illustrates ;-).

  • The second story in the list you linked to is another of my favorites. I think I first heard it about forty years ago.

  • Jimbino

    We’d be a lot better off if we’d paid Congress not to work at all.

  • PD Shaw

    I’m not convinced that the hours worked is a good metric. First, there are jobs where vacation time or hour flexibility are preferred forms of compensation, particularly raises. Second, a forty hour week is not necessarily the optimal span for all employment. The last I looked at hours worked per week, the only ones working forty hours were in manufacturing, where presumably the assembly line dictates the hour requirements, and highly compensated executives and professionals, who are working well above forty hours.

  • @PD: I believe that’s Dave’s point. The number of hours “put in” really doesn’t tell us anything useful.

  • jan

    Steve Verdon

    Enjoyed your humorous post. The one dealing with polical definitions was hilariously accurate.

  • Jan,

    Thanks, yes a nice find early in the morning. I also liked the ones with the economist, mathematicians and the train.

  • jan

    Regarding the topic of ‘work’ — much that occupies people’s time, and they get paid for it, is simply ‘busy work.’ It’s the kind of stuff whose content is similar to what school’s use to educate students — rout and meaningless.

    When my husband was in the Navy he experienced this in the form of military structure and demands. It totally went against what I call his more rugged, independent spirit. Consequently, once he was out, he was determined to be is own boss, which is what happened.

    For someone like him, ‘work’ entails filling in all the vacant holes of a business. Unexpected problems arise almost daily, and it’s up to us to figure out the solution. Hands-on work, the core of any self-owned business, means not kicking the can to someone else — and if there is no one on deck to assign the task to, you do it yourself.

    Consequently, productive utilization of one’s time , goal-setting, and personal satisfaction, leading to meaningfulness in one’s work effort are all tied into the day — including endless lists which become more important than a time-piece, as to when the work day ends. That’s why a 40 hour work week is a foreign concept to many of us dependent on the fruits of our own labor, along with the idea of a dependable pay check, where there are far fewer monetary guarantees, in relationship to the hours put in given projects or the risks taken.

  • steve

    I am somewhat familiar with the work of these two. I think that are often disingenuous in their work. They work at an institute that generally decries credentialism, yet advocate for it as a metric in their studies. That said, in this particular case, I think they are correct. Hours worked by govt employees should be more closely aligned with those of the private sector. I would also include teachers in this, even though they do not. Our long summer vacations, a leftover from our agrarian days, just dont make much sense anymore.


  • PD Shaw

    steve, they can take teachers out, or better yet, why not compare public with private sector teachers? I don’t have a sense that public versus private teachers work that different hours.

    I think the difference between 41 and 38 hours a week is small enough that it can easily be attributed to different types of jobs. They don’t offer specifics. Postal workers generally don’t take their work home with them. If the DMV was stocked like McDonald’s they would all be part time workers, coming in primarily during morning/evening/lunchtime rushes.

    BLS data shows the average work week in the service sector is about 32 hours, and 41 hours in mfg. I assume that private sector people are self-reporting that they spend additional time at home making phone calls or monitoring their e-mail. Are they subtracting time spent at the office arguing on blogs or checking face-book?

  • steve

    PD- I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they made apples to apples comparisons. I am also influenced by my time in the military and working at the VA. Perhaps I am too generous and should be more questioning.


  • Andy

    As a new federal government civilian employee I can report that I’m required to work 80 hours every two weeks, though I have some flexibility in how that’s accomplished. If I work over 80 hours I can apply for credit time. If I work less than 80, I have to make up for it with leave or my salary is reduced by a pro-rated amount.

    When I was full-time in the military it was obviously much different. I’m not sure how I would count living on a ship 24/7 for six months working 12-14 hour shifts.

    Then there is my brother who owns a small construction company. He probably works twice the hours I do. He could theoretically hire someone in order to work less, but for a variety of reasons he can’t and doesn’t want to.

    There are serious problems with the federal government workforce. First, I don’t think the model of lower pay for job security works. I think it incentivizes mediocrity. On one hand, employees are very difficult to fire for sub-standard performance due to employee protections and the effect of bureaucratic turf. On the other hand, the relatively low pay for many doesn’t exactly promote a good work ethic either. That said, I don’t think that describes most of the workforce, but the numbers are sufficient to really make getting stuff done a lot more difficult.

    In my new job I’ve been very surprised at how much time I spend trying to get others to do their jobs and how much time I spend trying to navigate the bureaucracy. These were often bad in the military, but it’s a lot worse in the civil service. In short, my 80 hours or “work” per pay period is a lot less productive than it could be.

  • jan


    I’m reminded of when I was working the 4-midnight shift at a local hospital. It was a newer and chaotic medical facility, and I worked within the guidelines of what had to be done, rather than by the designated time breaks supplied by the administration. Consequently, dinner and coffee breaks were random and seldom taken by me. However, when my shift was over, my patients were stable, and the RN had clocked in and was on duty to relieve me, I left for home. Numerous times, though, I would come upon staff waiting at the time clock, to punch out so as not to be docked a penny of pay. They were always so amazed when I slipped my card in, saying “I’m out of here. My work is done. And, my husband is waiting for me.”

    There were also times, when the floor was understaffed and overwhelmed by one crisis after another. If the RN was late, I stayed on. Even if she/he came on time, sometimes I stayed on to ease the transition from one shift to another — all without overtime, as you had to request it, and I just never found the time for such a formality. I personally value time for it’s usefulness, productivity, and helpfulness it brings to others, more than for the monetary value stapled on it for just ‘being present.’

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