You often hear that union workers, particularly federal workers, are “overpaid.” You can produce a study making this case. But it will ultimately be an apples-to-oranges study.

If you compare organized federal employees, many of whom have college degrees, to unorganized service-sector and retail workers, then yes, you will find higher wages in the public sector. But if you do an apples-to-apples comparison between public employees and their private-sector counterparts in related fields, you will find that the public sector is significantly undervalued.

And because federal employees, at least, have suffered under a wage freeze that’s going on three years, that wage gap has increased.

White-collar federal employees are underpaid on average by about 35 percent compared with the private sector, a widening of the “pay gap,” which stood at about 26 percent last year, an advisory group said Friday.

The Federal Salary Council based that number on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that by law are supposed to be used in setting annual General Schedule pay raises [...]

“This clearly shows that there is a pay gap and that federal employees are underpaid,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and a council member. “Hopefully, we can get back to reasonable cost-of-living adjustments and work on the pay gap.”

“I think on federal pay there’s too much misinformation and fiction out there,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union and also a council member. “There’s a very long history to this methodology. Even if someone wants to argue with what the number is, it’s important to address that there is a gap and it continues to grow. There’s no way to make the number zero, if you’re basing it on facts.”

You cannot lump together those who clean up the National Mall and those who work on scientific breakthroughs at the National Institute of Health, compare them to the “average worker,” and come up with a legitimate pay scale for federal employees. You have to go sector by sector and find the appropriate comparison in the private sector. And when you do that work, you see that federal employees are underpaid. This has an impact on millions of hard-working Americans, who are forced to take less than their skills would bring them back in the open market, because of a foolish tendency toward austerity and the demonizing of public workers.