Payroll Peeking

Government salaries have always been public record. But not the way they are now.
by | August 2007

Not sure if you're making what you deserve in that state government job? You might try hitting the Web to see what someone in a comparable position is making somewhere else.

Salary data across state lines is getting easier to track all the time. In a few cases, such as Georgia and Iowa, state agencies simply post the information themselves in searchable public databases. But in a larger and growing number of states, it's the news media that are letting the numbers loose. One of the newest examples--and perhaps the most controversial--is a salary database for Michigan state workers that made its debut in June on the Web site of the Lansing State Journal.

It was a touchy time to be releasing pay figures in Michigan. The state's daunting budget crisis made government salaries an especially sensitive subject, a point that was obvious from the reactions posted by government workers in voluminous message boards on the newspaper's site,

For the most part, state employees were incensed at the newspaper for publishing what they considered to be sensitive personal information. "I am a VERY private person and I am SO not happy that anyone can just look up how little I make!" one reader complained. "Just because I'm a State employee doesn't mean that I'm not entitled to PRIVACY," wrote another. "I'm not elected."

Many readers accused the paper of engaging in sensationalism--"God forbid you did some actual reporting on real news.… You are nothing more than a small time tabloid."--while others complained about inaccuracies and lack of context. There also was considerable worry about whether the data could be used by identity thieves.

On the other hand, with lawmakers and the governor engaged in a ferocious fight over spending priorities, some Michigan employees saw advantages in the public seeing how little some state employees make. "I for one am glad to see this information online," one worker wrote. "If state employees are underpaid they should have no problem with this info being public." Plus, that worker added, citizens would see how much more "our do-nothing managers make."

The reaction in Michigan was pretty typical of the feedback other news organizations have heard when creating such repositories. One Boston Herald reader, discussing a government salary database posted recently on that newspaper's Web site, said the information created instant havoc among the 50 or so employees in her office. "We're normally a fairly affable bunch," she said. "But now, yowwee! They are at each other's throats and we actually had to break up a shoving match!"

Public salaries ought to be fair game for media and citizen scrutiny. But a little more context and a little less voyeurism would take care of most of the workers' objections. Pairing the raw data not only with other states but with private-sector salaries for similar jobs would help. Perhaps using the names isn't necessary either--although journalists could probably argue that both ways, and even without names, some people would still be identifiable based solely on title and department.