published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Gerber: TVA pay and public records

TVA has more than 12,000 employees and this week it seems like I’ve heard from most of them.

My inbox is overflowing with emails from Tennessee Valley Authority employees angry that the Times Free Press requested a list of what the federal utility pays its employees. They don’t want the paper to publish the salary list on our website.

The newspaper’s website lists the pay of nearly 127,000 public employees in Tennessee and Georgia, including 76 from TVA. In December, Business Editor Dave Flessner requested a list of all TVA employees, and the utility supplied it March 1.

“Muck raking,” is how one TVA employee reacted to the newspaper’s request. And he was kinder than some.

TVA employees offer a variety of reasons for not wanting their salaries published, privacy chief among them.

Most workers say they feel like the newspaper is sharing information that should be private.

“I was taught not to speak about money,” the wife of a TVA employee told me, “so this seems wrong.”

Another wrote that the list would “attract the attention of nosey, curious readers” who will look up the salaries of people they know who work at TVA.

“The publication of these salaries will cause embarrassment, irritation, resentment and hurt feelings for those involved,” according to the letter writer.

Another said publishing the list will “set up unjustified envy and protest.”

A form letter some TVA employees sent includes these reasons for asking us not to publish the salary list:

* Knowing what co-workers earn puts employees in an “awkward position” with their neighbors, friends, enemies, family and co-workers.

* Co-workers may be “put in a difficult situation” by knowing each other’s salaries. “If I find out that ‘Bob’ makes $10,000 more than I do and I feel like I work harder than he does, how is my manager going to address this when I challenge that fact?” the letter asks.

* Ex-spouses of divorced TVA employees could use their salary to seek higher child support or alimony.

(Sorry, but if you’re lying about your salary in order to pay less child support, that isn’t the newspaper’s problem. Same goes for the man concerned that he might have to tithe more if his minister finds out his salary.)

TVA employees have many, many reasons why they don’t want their salaries known. But

like it or not, what each and every TVA employee earns is a public record.

That’s why TVA handed the information to the newspaper after we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.

Providing a list of names, job titles and salaries of all employees “is similar to the approach taken by the many federal and state agencies that routinely make such information available,” Janet Herrin, TVA’s chief administrative officer, said in a letter to employees. “... We understand that employees may prefer that salary levels remain private, but it is important that we try to maintain the level of transparency and fulfillment of disclosure policies that the public expects from us.”

Anyone, or any company, can request the list of salaries, which ranges from custodians making $19,725 a year to the $3 million that President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Kilgore earns annually.

Because TVA has been under pressure to streamline its management and lower its debt of more than $24 billion, how it spends its money is newsworthy.

Consider this:

* TVA spends more than $1 billion a year of ratepayer money from the people of the Tennessee Valley on its salaries.

* TVA rates and spending on employee pay are not subject to outside review by state public service commissions or other regulators as in most states.

* TVA’s executives are among the highest-paid federal employees in America, and its employees are arguably among the better paid in the region. In November, TVA spent $107 million on incentive bonuses for its employees — that’s an average of $8,300 per employee at a time when most federal workers are under a pay freeze.

* The median TVA employee was paid $74,465 in base pay in 2011, not counting overtime and year-end bonuses.

Herrin’s letter states that TVA’s salaries are based on an assessment of compensation for similar work in this labor market.

“In setting salaries, our goal is to provide the competitive level of compensation necessary to attract and retain skilled and dedicated employees,” she wrote.

Many TVA employees make the point that they have worked many years to reach their current compensation level, and certainly many have highly specialized degrees and do jobs that require a great deal of training. I don’t dispute that.

We recognize the economic benefit that TVA has made to our region and the value of TVA employees’ contributions to the community.

The Times Free Press isn’t alone in publishing the salaries of public employees. Many newspapers across the country have databases of public employees’ salaries on their websites.

In some instances, the data could help bring to light unjustifiable pay disparities or bring attention to the need to pay some workers more. The information also holds accountable public agencies that ought to be able to justify their employees’ pay level to the public.

TVA workers also point out that TVA is not funded by taxpayers. But TVA, as a federally owned agency, enjoys many benefits.

Until two decades ago, TVA was funded by taxpayers and Congress initially funded the construction of TVA dams, power plants and other infrastructure.

Now TVA gets its money from ratepayers when they pay their monthly electricity bills.

As a federally owned corporation, TVA doesn’t pay income, sales or property taxes like investor-owned utilities. (TVA does pay a fee known as “in-lieu-of-taxes,” but that is only 5 percent of revenues, less than what most investor-owned utilities pay in total taxes).

TVA enjoys the implied backing of the federal government, which major rating agencies cite as key for giving TVA its top AAA rating for its bonds.

Above all, TVA is a public agency responsible for managing the Tennessee River and nearly 300,000 acres of public land, and Congress has given TVA a protected monopoly on supplying electricity in this region.

So the Times Free Press will add the list of TVA employee names and salaries to the searchable database in the Right2Know section of the newspaper’s website.

We have listened to all the reasons why TVA employees do not want us to do this. We respect TVA employees and the work they do. In the end, we agree with TVA’s Herrin that it’s “important ... to maintain the level of transparency” the public expects.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at Send suggestions to reader

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
John_Proctor said...

So, Ms. Gerber, how about you post your salary.

I know you don't have to, the paper is not a government entity, not yet at least, but if it's o.k. for TVA then fairness dictates that you do likewise.

March 11, 2012 at 12:25 a.m.
sage1 said...

I was told by a TVA worker (my sister) that their wages were negotiated and averaged (not the highest, nor the lowest) of the power generating companies in the South East and states that border Tennessee. Reck'n Ya'll can find that out too? It might go a long ways towards verifying your stance that they are overpaid, or it might bring about an " I understand..." or a "Well, I guess their NOT overpaid..." moment for everyone.

Just a suggestion.

March 11, 2012 at 4:05 a.m.
Chattanooga1 said...

This article has listed just a few examples of an extensive list of negative issues that the posting of this information is going to cause many of your current Times Free Press customers (who also happen to be TVA employees) but I have yet to understand what the "positives" are by posting this sensitive information. What benefits will come from providing this level of information? Will the benefits outweigh the problems that the release of this information will cause to a large amount of people? Would you feel comfortable if everyone's salary at your office or church was released?

Would the newspaper not consider simply posting this information by title and salary range - this would provide the desired transparency while protecting employee personal information. I do not understand why the inclusion of employee specific names will provide any reasonable benefit to those who are interested in the information.

As a subscriber to your newspaper, I have never understood why TVA seems to typically be portrayed in a negative manner, considering the amount of service that their hard-working employees put in to make sure "the lights stay on" for those in the Valley. If this sensitive information is posted (as your articles states), this will help my decision to maintain or cancel my support of this local newspaper as I'm sure many others will feel the same.

March 11, 2012 at 10:31 a.m.
tipper said...

Where is the story? This is a case from a professional journalism point of view where TFP is making the news rather than reporting it; the story is not the salaries but the reactions to them. As I pointed out to Ms. Gerber, it is like pushing someone off a building and running downstairs to write a story about the blood spatter. I have not heard any clamoring to know TVA salaries. The Freedom of Information Act is available to anyone, not just newspapers. One has to wonder what the agenda is here. With all the fervor against government coming from the right--Chattanooga being a place with no shortage of ultra-conservatives--there is nothing to be gained with the publishing of TVA salaries except animus. Everybody knows that TVA employees are paid from revenues earned in the sale of power to various distributors. Taxpayer monies are not involved--a fact that the TFP needs to emphasize. Hopefully, TFP's publisher and Ms. Gerber will read some of these posts. My opinion, however, due to the kind of crazy stuff we get on this site, they seldom do. In any event, this type of journalism fuels the fire that the press's approval ratings has hit rock bottom and has become very unprofessional compared to decades past.

March 11, 2012 at 12:24 p.m.
acerigger said...

The people who want to privatize the TVA are still hard at work.

March 12, 2012 at 8:15 a.m.
volfan7333 said...

There is no reason or logic stated in this article as to the reason that names are being used. Ms. Gerber states because they have done this to other individuals in the past or that other newspapers have used this approach the action is justified. This is a immature, childish rationalization instead of a logical reason. It is irresponsible for the paper to publish any names (TVA employee or otherwise). The title/position with the salary provide the same transparency without violating anyone’s privacy or risking their personal security.

March 12, 2012 at 8:58 a.m.
chattn said...

Ms. Gerber openly states that she has heard from many TVA employees who have requested that their personal information not be posted, yet she seems to be proud of the fact that she has the power to totally ignore the requests of the hard-working employees in the area. These employees are requesting nothing more than that their personal information remain personal. They wrote to her believing that if they spoke up about their concerns, she would listen. However, she has callously chosen to ignore their concerns. The number of emails she received reflects the level of concern these workers feel, but Ms. Gerber's ability (power) to ignore these concerns trumps their request for privacy.

I am not a TVA employee, but my response to such arrogance is to cancel my paper subscription! If the paper will post the salaries of others without an obvious, valid reason, it can invade the privacy of anyone in the area. The paper does not care about its readers; the readers need to go else where for their news! CANCEL your paper subscription no matter where you work, and urge everyone you know to do the same!

March 12, 2012 at 11:02 a.m.
Filbert said...

Has the TFP considered the potential fallout of publishing the salaries of TVA employees just for the fun of it? Sure, they say they will use it for identifying salary deviations. But the fact is that the TFP will anger their subscribers that work for TVA. What if all of the TVA employees angered by the irresponsibleness of the TFP canceled their subscriptions to the paper? Is the benefit from publishing the salaries worth the loss of subscriptions? Press on TFP!

March 12, 2012 at 12:06 p.m.
chrisntn said...

In a style of careless statement of facts so common in media today, Ms. Gerber addressed the issue of the fact that TVA is funded solely by power sales but added a qualifier that was either an honest error or a purposely misleading statement.

In fact, it was not 20 years ago that TVA became self-financing. No, TVA became self-financing thru power sales in 1959. Say it again. NINETEEN FIFTY NINE. However, TVA also manages public lands, campgrounds, and recreation areas for which it once received federal dollars. I assume that is the federal funding of which she speaks. But for the last 20 years, TVA has been forced to pay for all the land and recreation area needs out of power funds. In other parts of the country, federal dollars pay for these area thru the Department of the Interior programs. That means that in the Tennessee Valley we are basically taxed twice for these public lands, campgrounds, boat launches, etc. What other power company has to do that? NONE.

Finally, how much money did TVA receive for non-power statuatory obligations back when they were still appropriated? It would have been approximately 3-5% of the total revenue in the last year received. The vast majority of TVA's funding came from the sale of power even back then, and ONE HUNDRED PERCENT from sales of electricity now. Why is this such a difficult concept to grasp?

This is very important to understand because it means market forces have a real impact on TVA in spite of the fact that is is federally owned. If rates get too high, businesses leave the Valley. Businesses leaving is not in line with the TVA mission. If the TVA mission is not being achieved, then the TVA board starts getting calls and before long actions are being taken to put things right.

March 12, 2012 at 1:47 p.m.
FreeSpeech1984 said...

Ms. Gerber, Will you take responsiblity for putting a target on my back. Reminds me of Orwell's 1984 where demigods like the TFP run amock of hard working individuals trying to keep the lights on. Since I work for a Federal Agency do I need to tell you my PSA score? Why not get the salaries and pay for all charitable agencies and non-profits like churches? I have had enough. I will find something else to wrap my fish with.

March 12, 2012 at 3:54 p.m.
truthNknowledge said...

Really, what's the benefit Ms. Gerber of posting names vs. job titles? Tell me. So that everyone knows what a single mom makes as an accounting clerk? That's very important information isn't it?

The backlash you will receive, both polictically and economically will be great.

This is seen by the public of simply a smear campaign with no regard to everyday public's privacy. These are people's jobs, careers, and private information you are intruding.

Get ready for cancelations. Don't forget most in the valley either know someone or have family that has made a fair career at TVA. If this is your intent, you are succeeding.

I don't subscribe to your paper, but after reading your article, that many have pointed out the lack of facts and poor logic, I can see why your paper struggles and even perhaps why you go for what appears to be an easy attention getter. Well, you've got folks attention :)

March 12, 2012 at 4:38 p.m.
drjefe said...

So, I get the First Amendment thing, and I get the Freedom of Information Act thing, but as a journalist you've failed in conveying the importance of the story here! You seem to be exercising your legal right for the sake of exercising your legal right. Where's the greater good for society in publishing TVA salaries? Do you think it will make my electric bill go down? For that matter, where's the greater good in doing this for the TFP? Do you think it will make your readership go up? Nope. This is a lose-lose if the TFP follows through. The individual hard-working men and women of TVA (and for the record I am not one) could at a minimum face embarassment, and the TFP will at a minimum lose subscribers (including me). Publish titles and salaries if you must, but not names and salaries. I agree with others that the latter represents a violation of privacy and benefits no one, including the TFP! Exercise some corporate responsibility here; do the right thing; be a good neighbor! Don't publish names and salaries.

March 12, 2012 at 5:14 p.m.
MellissaCook said...

I will be canceling my subscription to your paper. There is not a legit reason to publish TVA salaries and you will have undone much of the good TVA has tried to do to increase morale at TVA. You will have also decreased productivity for the foreseeable future. When the paper loses a significant amount of your subscriptions, don't waste your time publishing a retraction.

March 12, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.
Right2boycott said...

I do not work for TVA so I don't have to deal with this invasion of privacy. There is really nothing in this article that would suggest the TFP had any real legitimate reason to request that information. They they did. Then they decided to violate the privacy of each employee of TVA and post it...because we live in the US and they can. But do you know what else we can do in the US? We can cancel our subscriptions to this rag and we can notify the advertisers that pay the TFP that we are going to boycott their products and services if they do not stop advertising in the TFP. Of course you are free to do whatever you choose...great thing to live in America.

March 12, 2012 at 7:33 p.m.
tennman9898 said...

Hey TFP...just a might want to cross-reference your list of subscribers with your list of TVA employees...I'm betting that you can count on your CANCELLATION LIST matching those lists.
I can promise you that I will be calling to have mine put on there the minute I see that salary list!

March 13, 2012 at 11:21 a.m.
unrighteous said...

And, by the way . . . I am an 11 year employee with TVA and the payout I recieved was not $8300.00. It was 2100.00 before taxes, so your "average employee gets 8300.00" is wrong. I think out of "public interest", you should publish your employees salaries from the newspaper rag. And, if it weren't for TVA and it's employees, this entire valley would still be twenty years behind the times for flood control, economic development, recreation, electricity and a whole host of other categories. So, lets see if you have the guts to divulge your salary.

March 13, 2012 at 2:45 p.m.
unrighteous said...

Oh yeah, . . . . How do we know you havent decided to edit some of these responses? It would seem right for you to sway that way.

March 13, 2012 at 2:50 p.m.
unrighteous said...

I need to know the salary of Judge Andrew Jackson the sixth in Knoxville.

March 13, 2012 at 3 p.m.
mrredskin said...

why did you post the average bonus instead of the median? since the TFP's INITIAL goal was to post high-end salaries, this seems like the obvious statistic to post. that's because it is, and you chose to post the one with the more exagerated bonus.

just take a look at all of the articles about TVA in the paper. Every single one is negative.

TFP is about to lose quite a few subscribers due to this. I'm sure they already have with the "no comment" rule they put into place several months ago for their "factual" articles.

March 13, 2012 at 3:56 p.m.
sage1 said...

TFP has become a joke of a paper. I refuse to call it a NEWSpaper because it is very biased politically rather than Fair and Impartial reporting. TFP tries to spin the news it prints towards it's political favor or beliefs. They obviously have a vendetta against TVA. I refuse to participate because I do have friends and family that work or have worked at TVA, but who doesn't? I have decided the moment I see this personal infomation in the TFP, I will support them and cancel. I'll take the USA Today in it's place. 14.95 per month and includes the E-edition. Go ahead TFP....Make my day.

March 13, 2012 at 8:39 p.m.
TinaN said...

Many of the complaints are without merit, in the sense that TFP choosing not to publish the information won't actually resolve them. In the same way that TFP requested and received the information, your coworkers, family members, friends, enemies, and so on can still request it any time! That is, TFP is not "intruding on your privacy" this way because you currently have no right to privacy in these matters in the first place. If you feel strongly about that, the people you need to contact are your US Congressmen. Otherwise, you're making a big deal just to gain imaginary satisfaction while you remain as vulnerable to privacy intrusions as ever. /// On the matter of fair and objective reporting, I agree strongly with the complaints. Elementary statistics teaches that using Average as a measure of central tendency is vulnerable to skewing due to a small amount of outliers. Median is a generally preferable measure to provide, and you can still point out specific outliers as relevant. ... Which I notice is used for the calculation of base pay without any qualifiers for the median years of experience and the most commonly performed jobs. I haven't reviewed a sufficient number of articles on this to make any kind of definitive judgment, but I will say I'm not surprised that there are people in the comments suggesting motives other than promoting oversight to the publication of this information. It's being handled poorly, though whether through a lack of familiarity with the methods of unbiased management of statistics or other motivations, I couldn't say.

March 13, 2012 at 11:28 p.m.
tennman9898 said...

Since the salaries were published on your website last night, I called and cancelled my subscription this morning, as I promised I would do.
If TFP were a REAL newspaper, they would have something else to report besides salaries.

March 14, 2012 at 9:23 a.m.
chattn said...
 ***My subscription is now cancelled too!***

I urge anyone upset about the newspaper publishing the personal information of your friends, neighbors, and relatives to cancel also! I am not employed by TVA, but I am supporting those employees on this issue. We can't sit back and tell ourselves that this doesn't impact us simply because we don't work at TVA. We could be next! I don't want my personal information posted publicly either and am willing to cancel the newspaper to show my support. I hope there are a lot of you willing to cancel the paper also!

Call the NFP Stop/Start newspaper number - 757-6262

March 14, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.
abcd1234 said...

This is clearly just a money racket for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. I will never purchase a one of their papers again and I would encourage ALL TVA employees to cancel their subscription as well.

A true journalist would be talented enough to come up with stories people are entrigued to read. However, it appears they have to post people's personal business, hoping the nosies out their will purchase their paper!

March 14, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.
bill76 said...

Some of us will remember the attitude of our local newspaper next time we're called out during severe weather to restore your power. How about a story about how TVA employees put their lives at risk to keep the lights on for everyone? How about reporting the volunteer work many of us do in the community or the way we use our excessive (in your mind, at least) salaries to adopt children from foreign countries who would otherwise die due to lack of sufficient food or basic medical care? Why not write about the hard work it takes to become a well-paid engineer or nuclear plant operator? Why not write about the engineers who work countless hours of unpaid overtime each month (at TVA and elsewhere) because the work has to get done to keep our society running? I know why. It's because your industry is dying, and you're desperate to "expose" something in order to remain relevant in a post-newsprint world. Good luck with that.

March 15, 2012 at 10:03 a.m.
valleyman said...

I cannot find pay for any current plant managers. It seems either TVA was selective in their releases or Times Free Press is selective in publishing. It must be nice to be exempt from FOIA or in cahoots with TVA for press. Seems with bad reactor reviews this would need some responsible personnel.

March 15, 2012 at 12:42 p.m.
sage1 said...

Hmm....I betcha this entire article and comments gets deleted in 5...4...3...2...........

March 15, 2012 at 9:20 p.m.
Fedup6789 said...

You failed to list the plant managers salaries. I didn't expect your information to be accurate or complete. Care to address why it was omitted?

March 16, 2012 at 2:05 p.m.
TVAdiverguy said...

It looks like there are many names missing from the database. So, what do I have to do to exclude my name from it? Do I need to call or email Ms. Gerber personally? I'm sure she cares about each and every one of us who feel personally affronted by this and will immediately remove our names from the list along with the ones already not listed.

March 17, 2012 at 10:36 a.m.
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