Furloughs Feed Federal Worker Insecurity Amid Pay FreezesJeanna Smialek
Karen Buondonno, a drone researcher at the Federal Aviation Administration for 23 years, used to view her job as secure. That sense of safety has eroded, she said, a casualty of three furloughs since 2011.
Buondonno, 46, and a National Federation of Federal Employees union representative, said she loves her work and has no intention of quitting.
What worries her, she says, is attracting and retaining a new generation of talent. A young colleague left for Amazon.com Inc. after being forced to take time off earlier this year, she said, and a woman who sits near her is “openly talking” about other options.
“When I took this job, I knew I was going to have kids, and job security and benefits were a major reason,” said Buondonno, mother to a 6-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son and the primary breadwinner in her Linwood, New Jersey, household. “Those things are out the window.”
The federal government is in the fourth day of its first partial shutdown in 17 years as the House and Senate clash over the U.S. budget, and about 800,000 workers have been sent home. The closings are the latest in a series of political standoffs that have affected government employees -- and which may make federal public service a less attractive career.
“The partial shutdown is devastating for those that are in government, and is a warning sign for those who might consider going into government,” said Max Stier, chief executive officer of the Washington-based non-profit Partnership for Public Service, which aims to attract young people to the federal workforce. “If we don’t get the right people into government, we won’t get the government that we want.”
Agencies have been furloughing employees since Congress failed to avert automatic spending cuts, called sequestration, which started in March. Since Oct. 1, budget strife has sent almost half of the government’s 2.1 million civilian workers home. Congressional Republicans tried to tie changes to Obamacare to passage of a stopgap plan to fund the government, while Democrats insisted on leaving the health-care law untouched.
Buondonno is among those furloughed twice within the past six months, and hasn’t been paid for the one day she was forced to take off earlier this year. She was also among FAA employees forced to take time off in 2011 after the agency’s funding expired and Congress failed to authorize a new budget, leaving her out of work for about two weeks for which she was later paid.
The threat that employees may forgo furlough pay intensifies the uncertainty, said Colleen Kelley, a former Internal Revenue Service agent who has been national president of the Washington-based National Treasury Employees Union since 1999. Employees required to work during a shutdown are ensured retroactive pay once the government reopens, but those furloughed need congressional action to receive wages.
A House bill introduced Sept. 30 would mandate all federal employees receive wages lost during the shutdown, as would a Senate version introduced a day later.
Even though employees were paid in the aftermath of back-to-back budget standoffs in 1995 and 1996 that lasted a total of 26 days, that was a “very different time for Congress,” Kelley said. “There is no guarantee this time.”
Elizabeth Lytle, 54, is on her second furlough this year from her job as an administrative program assistant at the Environmental Protection Agency. She said she wouldn’t recommend federal government work to young people.
“It’s no job security,” said Lytle, who lives in Waukegan, Illinois, and took online classes and finished her bachelor’s of science degree in environmental management and policy earlier this year. She hasn’t been able to advance her career because of a dearth of openings, she said. “If you’re trying to do something, go into other fields, don’t go into a government agency, it’s not worth it.”
Even before the recent turmoil, a three-year pay freeze for federal employees and lawmakers was making federal work less attractive, said Jacque Simon, public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.
Changes to federal employee pensions, such as those mandated by the payroll tax cut bill of 2012, are also hitting morale, Kelley said. The law increased employee contributions to pensions and reduced benefits for congressional employees, applicable to anyone joining the workforce as of Jan. 1, 2013.
“When potential federal employees see things like this playing out, that they’ve had their pay frozen for three years, sequester, it will raise questions about whether this is a good future,” Kelley said. “We will see the ramifications of this.”
Local and state government jobs aren’t proving a stable alternative. State workers whose programs rely on federal funding may be sent home during government furloughs -- North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services furloughed 337 employees as of Oct. 1 related to the shutdown, for instance.
A Governing magazine survey of 223 senior state and local officials nationwide taken this spring found that 42 percent reported pay freezes implemented during the last calendar year.
It is tough to tell whether fewer or less-qualified candidates are applying to federal government jobs in response to stagnant pay and political division, Stier said. No metric exists to assess new-hire quality, job-posting websites have made application volume a poor gauge of interest and government hiring has been reduced amid austerity, he said.
Even so, he said he thinks it’s “already the case that great people are being dissuaded” from federal careers.
Students at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy are broadening their job searches beyond government to include non-profits and private consulting firms, amid tight competition for few jobs and uncertainty caused by sequestration and furloughs, said Donna Dyer, director of Sanford’s career services at the school in Durham, North Carolina, in an e-mail.
Frustration could be prompting current federal employees to leave the workforce, said William Dougan, national president of the Washington-based union National Federation of Federal Employees.
In fiscal year 2012, prior to the furloughs, the number of retirements rose to 69,236, up from 64,237 in 2011 and 46,100 in 2009, based on U.S. Office of Personnel Management data. That is caused partly by an aging federal workforce, and may also reflect frustration following pay freezes and congressional grappling over federal retirement packages, said Dougan, whose union represents 110,000 blue-and-white collar government workers, according to its website.
“Part of you thinks they don’t want the best federal employees, like they’re trying to force you into the private sector,” said Johnny Zuagar, 33, a 10-year Census Bureau employee who heads a local branch for the American Federation of Government Employees. He said he’s wondered whether he should look for a second job to make ends meet should the shutdown last for weeks. “We know we work for Congress, but we don’t feel like they like us too much.”
Optimism among federal workers had fallen prior to sequestration and government shutdown, based on a survey conducted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in spring 2012. Pay satisfaction fell to 59 percent, down four percentage points from the 2010 survey and at the lowest level since 2004. A gauge measuring workers’ satisfaction with their jobs fell three percentage points to 68 percent.
Those numbers aren’t necessarily due to stagnant pay and political turmoil, said Chris Edwards, an economist at the Washington-based CATO Institute, a policy research organization that advocates for limited government.
“A shutdown is not good for morale, but there’s a long list of other things that should have been addressed,” Edwards said, adding that bureaucratic pay structures that reward time served over effort and rigid rules may also affect worker sentiment. Wages remain competitive and benefits excellent, he said. “The federal government draw is very strong, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
A 2012 report by the Congressional Budget Office showed that federal wages between 2005 and 2010 tended to be higher than private sector wages for those with a high school diploma and some college, about equal for those with a bachelor’s degree, and lower for those with master’s and doctoral degrees. Benefits were more generous for federal employees or about the same at all education levels.
A Government Accountability Office report released in June 2012 said no comparison between government and non-government pay is definitive and most reach different conclusions due to different comparison methodologies.
For Buondonno, who said she has a good job and a mission that she believes in, it’s the uncertainty that’s a problem.
“Our benefits are constantly under attack, I’m seeing the things I’ve worked for disappear before my eyes,” she said. It’s tough to see young colleagues in her group questioning their future, she said. “We’ve invested a lot of time, and that’s intellectual capital that we can’t get back.”