Feds: Now we know what chopped liver feels like

For federal employees, the most unnerving sign during the early rounds of the budget debate might have been President Barack Obama's imposition of a two-year pay freeze.

Although the freeze wasn't frozen enough for some critics — it didn't eliminate every possible means by which employees could have their pay increased — it was a clear signal to feds that the Democrats would not necessarily be on their side as attacks on federal pay increased. In short order, there were calls for and, in some cases, bills advocating a three-year freeze, furloughs, hiring freezes, reduction by attrition and limits on bonuses, among other things.

A narrative emerged, predominantly in conservative circles, that federal employees were overpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts, even though making direct comparisons is notoriously difficult because of the differing circumstances, levels of training and expertise, and job functions in the public and private sectors.

Not everyone agreed, but Democrats appeared willing to consider some additional workforce measures. After Obama froze salaries, he also capped bonuses, furthering the impression that allies for employees — other than federal employee unions — would be few and far between.

Here is a sampling of the comments readers have posted on workforce-related articles at FCW.com. Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.

Not a pretty picture

Federal employees began to feel that they were becoming scapegoats for the federal deficit, and they didn't like it at all.

One of the first consequences that workforce defenders identified was a chilling effect on recruiting. How could agencies expect to attract talented, highly qualified young people to work in an environment in which lawmakers who had no connection to the jobs were making arbitrary cuts and freezes?

“I really want to serve” in the federal government, one reader wrote in commenting on a Federal Computer Week article. “I have 15 years of previous state and local government experience on top of my private-sector experience, but I refuse to be a punching bag for the politicians while my family suffers. Take note, new feds: Your elected officials don't care about you. If you can do better for yourself on the outside, go for it. I'm happy I did.”

And a reader calling himself John Q. Fed warned: “Young, talented IT people, STAY AWAY from the government. You'll trash your career and put yourselves years behind what your contemporaries make. If you aren't able to make more than a GS-15 [in the private sector], then come on over later in your careers, but you'll quickly stagnate here if you start young.”

The freeze is double jeopardy, another reader said, because it not only discourages new hires but causes existing employees to stagnate. "In essence, agencies are stuck with the people that they have, and the current employees are prevented from being capable of making employment changes that may be better suited to their skill sets and interests," the reader said. "This also applies to those agencies and departments that have bad management. There will be absolutely no chance for the duration of the freeze that these individuals will leave."

The workforce was becoming increasingly demoralized as 2011 progressed and more and more lawmakers proposed measures that would affect workers' livelihoods.

The scapegoating theme was a common one. As a reader who has worked for the government since 1984 put it: “Every year gets worse when the pols decide to use the federal employees as their smoke and mirrors for not doing their jobs. The federal employees are not the ones throwing pork into the budgets [or] using budgetary gimmicks to avoid showing true costs.”

Another reader offered a theory for the recurring assaults on the workforce: “I think part of the reason is that we are the only target [lawmakers] can handle. It is clear they won’t take on Wall Street, except to talk big and do nothing. They do the same for the health care industry, or even less. The federal workforce is the only group that they can continuously abuse, and there is nothing we can do about it but sit back and be thankful that it wasn’t worse.”

Forced furloughs

The efforts to cut costs through workforce measures have taken several forms. In January, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced a bill that would have required agency employees to take off a total of 10 unpaid days in fiscal 2012. The furlough plan riled readers, especially after we raised the question of whether today's ubiquitous connectivity meant some people might be required to work — or unable to resist it — even during forced, unpaid time off.

Jeff in Maryland offered the most definitive response to the question: Unpaid work is illegal except in emergencies, “punishable by up to two years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.”

That doesn't mean managers won't expect it anyway, though. Several readers told us they already work off the clock, and their managers don't seem to mind that it's not appropriate to demand that they do so.

“I and a good portion of my co-workers already work an additional 15 to 20 hours a week that we don't get paid for,” one reader wrote. “Not to mention that when I take 'use or lose' leave… I'm still assigned projects just before and while I'm on leave and expected to work on them during that time.”

“I already put in an extra 20 hours a week for free,” wrote another reader, who threatened to move to another country to find work if the furlough went into effect. “I am really tired of all of this.”

Others said they don't routinely work unpaid overtime but are expected to be on call at any time via a smart phone or other device. Most readers who commented said that if they're forced to take unpaid leave, those devices will go into a drawer or be left at the office.

Some readers pointed out the lingering effects of a furlough or pay freeze for employees nearing retirement because the amount of federal retirement benefits is based on the highest consecutive three-year average, which is commonly the employee's final three years on the job.

“By reducing my pay by two weeks, my annual income decreases, my average decreases, which means my pension decreases,” one reader wrote. “This is not a one-year thing for myself and many others. This is now a lifetime reduction.”

Private-sector haven?

The furlough proposal and other measures led many readers to wonder whether they'd get a better deal if they worked for private industry. Contrary to the insistence in some quarters that they are overpaid, many feds see private-sector colleagues earning higher salaries — without the pressure that comes from having one's paycheck in the hands of 535 people who don't have any direct role in one's daily work. Jumping off the federal ship looked attractive to many.

“The reason I originally chose to work for the federal government was to serve my country and gain job security,” a federal employee commented. “Now that job security is gone, I plan to leave and join a contracting agency, which has offered me almost [double] my current salary for doing the same job. I would be a fool not to jump.”

But a few readers who have already made the leap or who have always worked in the private sector waved some cautionary flags. Although it's easy to see the private grass as greener when your job is under assault, private-sector employment has its downsides, they said.

“Let me tell you about the private sector,” an IT professional wrote. “My pay has been reduced 5 percent for the last two and one-half years. Not frozen, reduced! I have not seen a pay raise for going on four years now.”

Shutdown specter

As if the targeted efforts to cut pay and hours weren’t enough, partisan disputes over the budget threatened to shut the government down earlier this year. Had that happened, most of the federal workforce would have been sent home without pay for the duration. And although that crisis was averted at almost the last minute, the contentious budget fight that led to it could be repeated as long as the deficit remains a major issue and Congress remains divided.

As the earlier deadline approached, many feds worried that their agencies were not ready to designate essential employees and turn off the lights during a shutdown. “To the best of my knowledge, no one in my (admittedly small) office has any idea of what our agency's plans are if there's a shutdown,” one employee wrote. “Due to the nature of my work, it's at least possible I'll be regarded as essential, but I don't know if anyone else in my office necessarily would be, and I don't know for certain whether I would be or not.”

For feds, a pressing question was whether they would get back pay after returning to work. In past shutdowns, furloughed employees have received back pay, but there was no guarantee they would have this time. Although federal employee unions aggressively lobbied Congress to pass legislation to provide the back pay, not all advocates were confident they would succeed.

"The way we view the pay matter is that during the last shutdown most [feds] believed that they were going to get paid," and they were, Dan Adcock, legislative director at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, told FCW’s sister publication Federal Daily. "Now this time, we’re not so sure. We’re hopeful. We’re going to fight to ensure that federal employees are made whole. But given the current politics of anti-fed sentiment, there is a more likely chance than before that they won’t be paid."

What about Congress?

For many federal employees, the biggest injustice was that Congress was proposing cuts and freezes for agency employees but not for themselves.

“Are they proposing a cut to House and Senate pay?” one reader asked. “Are they proposing to limit the health insurance benefits for congressional reps after their service is ended? If $101,000 is the average [federal employee salary], half of us make less than that. Some of us [make] much less. We are the ones who suffer when changes are made across the board.”

“Lawmakers should not get a paycheck until they can balance the budget and pay back money borrowed from other countries,” another reader wrote. “Cutting government employees sounds great, but it is only a distraction from what truly is killing America's economy.… Do you really think government employees are the problem?”

Some lonely voices

Not all federal employees opposed all the measures. Here and there, comments appeared expressing support — or at least a willingness to endure.

“Poor performers should receive NO increases until their performance is brought to a satisfactory level and maintained at that level for at least a year,” one fed wrote. “As for the pay freezes, I'm certainly not ecstatic about any block on getting higher pay, but I'm willing to sacrifice to get our country's economy back in shape.”


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