Feds say: What about contractors?

While members of Congress propose measures to freeze salaries and otherwise cut the costs associated with the federal workforce, many feds are wondering: What about contractors? After all, feds argue, contractors also have to be paid — often more than federal employees because the companies have to cover overhead and turn a profit.

If saving money is really the goal, the cuts can't apply just to federal employees, some feds say.

"Many of these Congress members 'speak with forked tongue,'" one reader said. "They cry, 'Let's reduce the federal workforce, but don't get in the way of hiring contractors to do the full-time tasks/requirements that clearly still need to be executed.' Either the task/job/requirement is valid, or it is not."

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, made the point in a column he wrote for Federal Computer Week in June. “Today, the federal contract workforce stands at about 10.5 million, which is roughly five times the size of the federal civilian workforce,” Dougan wrote. “By focusing exclusively on federal employees, lawmakers are excluding about 80 percent of the positions funded through federal agencies. There must be a shared sacrifice by government and industry if lawmakers are serious about downsizing.”

Many readers agreed, but some offered additional insight. For example, contract employees are usually limited in what they can do under the terms of a contract, while agency managers can assign their employees to a wider range of tasks — a dangerous power in the hands of a bad manager.

“In my career as a government IT specialist, I've been pulled from important software development so I could spend two weeks answering phones during the Christmas rush,” one reader told us. “I've been assigned inventory tasks that a GS-5 would be considered overpaid for. This often makes it appear that the contractors are more efficient [because] someone contracted to write software is allowed to do so, while her civil-service counterpart has to take time away from the project to manage the office's environmental program.”

However, others pointed out that contractors often bill the government for less than full-time work because they have multiple clients and spend only the time needed on each job. In such cases, the cost of contractors might be less than the cost of insourcing the work to agency employees.

“The issue is saving money, not jobs,” wrote one reader in explaining that view. “To reduce government, you must reduce spending. America doesn't care how many people do the work, only what it costs.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 28, 2011 Bill DC

I find it sad that this always turns to a Contractor vs Fed Employee issue. It's not. WE (as in the nation) spends more than it takes in. As an individual your options would be, borrow, spend less or earn more. Eventually, borrowing runs dry and then the options be come default on loans, spend less, earn more. WE as a nation need to earn more, better return on the money we are spending. Federal jobs/ contractor jobs are a smoke screen from Congress to keep the obvious at bay. Congress has to pass and maintain a budget.But WE have to decide on what services are musts from the government and what are not. Do we need to be in the middle east fighting wars? Don't know, I do know that looking at the budget military is a pretty big chunk.

Wed, Jul 27, 2011 FedGal Arlington, VA

While the Federal workforce is being hung out to dry, punching bag style, has anyone noticed how much money the U.S. has hemorrhaged in its useless, neverending 8+ year war in Iraq? I know it's water under the bridge, but as a Federal employee, I truly resent being the scapegoat for the stupid decisions of the previous administration. If anyone had asked me, I'd have told them that the U.S. would be in this war forever, and that I would cost a pretty penny (look what happened to the USSR in Afghanistan). But that's okay; we can compensate by squeezing every cent from each Federal employee. Afterall, we don't "produce" anything, and we're all sooo lazy. If all goes to plan, the Federal work force will be outsourced to China, where all the rest of our work has been sent. Gee, maybe I'll find a nice toilet-cleaning job in Bejing! Otherwise, I can look forward to working 40+ years for the U.S. government so I can afford something other than catfood for my daily retirement ration. >

Wed, Jul 27, 2011

Contractors like government workers are "negative" jobs. They produce nothing that can be sold for a profit (especially overseas), and can be taxed. We need a wholesale downsizing of Government (both government and contractor). The government needs to stop doing what the private sector can do. The government should be about the business of creating standards and inspecting to ensure the standards are met. Greece is a good example where you have too many government workers (and contractors) with high salaries and/or high benefits for the average Greek taxpayer to support. It is easy for politicians to promise the world to government workers, but when you run out of money to keep the promises, the State implodes. Last time I checked, Greece had to offer 16% interest to attract bondholders. If we don't downsize the government, create more real jobs (that produce something someone else wants to buy), and bend the debt-to-GDP curve, we will end up like Greece. A lot of poor people got screwed during the high-inflation Carter years. Methinks we are headed for a repeat.

Wed, Jul 27, 2011

Just so you know, the 30,000 or so contractors who work for the Dept of Energy's National Labs had our pay frozen for 3 years starting in January 2011.

Wed, Jul 27, 2011 Ronald Gurley DC

I am a government employee hired from the private sector and it never seems to amaze me how some people may notice one person dozz-off and then generalize that all government workers sleep on the job. That in order to justify their existance on the job they have to demerit others. I've notice in both sectors of the workforce how lazy people demarginalize other over their short-comings. They don't have to out perform their coworker they just need to degrade him behind his back in order that they look better to others.

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