Furlough adds to the anguish for federal workers

10/05/2013 3:26 PM

10/05/2013 4:29 PM

Christine Schmaltz has worked for the federal government for almost three decades — first as a clerk-typist for the Social Security Administration, now for the Environmental Protection Agency in Lenexa.

She likes her job. She thinks it makes the country a better place. And she needs the income. Her husband quit working to care for their now-deceased disabled son and hasn’t found a job since.

But like thousands of her co-workers, Schmaltz, 56, also hears whispers. Federal workers are unqualified, people say, protected by outdated work rules. They lack ambition. They are paid too much and do too little.

And unlike most jobs in the private sector, federal jobs can seem like they’re guaranteed for life.

Even President Ronald Reagan wanted in on the joke. The nine most terrifying words in the language, he once said, are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

It’s infuriating, Schmaltz says. And unfair.

“We hear it all the time,” she said. “We put in our time just like everyone else does. We think we make a difference.”

It isn’t clear exactly how many of the area’s 41,000 federal workers were hit again last week — told they weren’t essential, then sent home on indefinite, unpaid furloughs.

It’s likely, though, that you know one of them.

“They’re the person at your store. They’re the person at your church,” said Lisa Haugen, another EPA worker. “We live paycheck to paycheck. We’re not rolling in the dough.”

Distrust of the federal workforce is undoubtedly high and appears to be growing.

In mid September, researchers at George Washington University said 35 percent of those questioned in a poll had “very little confidence” in civilian federal workers, up from 21 percent four years ago.

The findings were even worse in central states like Kansas and Missouri. There, just 4 percent of respondents said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the federal workforce, by far the lowest rating in the nation.

“The series of scandals and follies over the past year are the most conspicuous explanation,” said Bill Adams, one of the researchers. “Most federal workers are hardworking and fair, but all the controversies took a toll.”

Indeed, videos of General Services Administration workers attending a 2010 morale-building conference in Las Vegas shot across the Internet last year, feeding the perception that federal workers are wasteful. An inspector general’s report later found parts of the session “excessive and impermissible.”

Scandals involving employees at the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department, even the Secret Service reinforce the poor public perception of federal workers.

But federal employees say the images severely distort the work most of them do. There are bad apples in the private sector, they say, yet they aren’t routinely offered up for public ridicule.

“It’s a difficult environment to be in,” said Elizabeth Sward, who has worked for the Treasury Department in Kansas City for 13 years. “You hear things about ‘overpaid federal workers.’ That’s not the reality.”

There are more than 140 federal agencies with Kansas City area employees, everything from the National Archives and the Bureau of Prisons to Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

The federal government is the region’s biggest employer, writing checks for about 4 percent of the entire workforce.

Most local white-collar federal workers are classified as General Schedule employees (blue-collar workers are paid hourly under the Federal Wage System, or FWS.) Jobs are assessed by difficulty, responsibility and required qualifications, then ranked from GS-1, the lowest grade, to GS-15.

Within each grade are 10 pay levels, called steps. Salaries differ depending on a worker’s location, but in 2013 a lowest-step GS-1 generally started at $17,803 a year, while a top-step GS-15 earned $129,517.

In some cases, performance bonuses are possible, and workers have access to employer-subsidized health insurance. There is paid vacation. Retirement plans are also available.

The Congressional Budget Office says many federal salaries are competitive with or even better than the private sector, particularly for workers with a high school education or just a few years of college. As worker education increases, the CBO found, federal salaries start to fall behind those offered by private business.

But most federal employees say pay is less important than job satisfaction — and predictability.

“We always view it as a secure job,” Schmaltz said.

That hasn’t always been the case.

More than a century ago, almost all federal jobs were patronage positions handed out to political supporters. For some federal positions here, that’s still the case.

But today most federal workers are insulated from arbitrary dismissals and political pressure. Indeed, the Hatch Act prohibits most from active involvement in partisan politics.

“We are the most regulated workforce in the world,” Lisa Haugen said. “We have more ‘can’ts’ than ‘can.’”

That insulation provides job security but makes it much harder to fire an underperforming federal worker. Even those who work for the government concede that substandard employees sometimes stay too long.

That, in turn, can feed public distrust. Federal workers who don’t fear dismissal and don’t have a profit motive can sometimes forget the customer’s needs, unlike a private shoe salesman or coffee vendor whose livelihoods depend on satisfied clients.

Some federal workers concede the point, although they say training and bonuses related to customer service are now an important part of their jobs.

But they also say federal job security, including a boss who won’t go out of business, is compensation for their sometimes smaller paychecks. Many federal workers have spouses who lost private jobs in the recession, reinforcing the need for a reliable but sometimes less lucrative payday.

Increasingly, that reliability is eroding. That’s partly because of cuts in the federal workforce — there are roughly 100,000 fewer federal civilian workers today than in 1981, Reagan’s first year in the White House.

Like the private sector, federal employees are doing more with less.

“My job used to be done by five people,” Haugen said.

Now, in addition to those reductions, federal employees face unpaid furloughs. This past spring’s sequester sent thousands home for unpaid three-day weekends, and the current government shutdown will leave workers with sharply lower paychecks, or none at all, perhaps for weeks to come.

In some local families, it’s doubly tough. Both workers rely on a federal check.

“The reality of zero income while this shutdown continues is very worrisome,” said Melissa Witcher, a Lenexa EPA employee whose husband works for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some politicians are sympathetic.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said last week that the federal workforce is often unfairly maligned. The work for some federal employees, he said, is so stressful they commit suicide.

“A lot of people disparage federal employees,” Blunt said, “until they need one.”

But many federal workers fear that support isn’t translating into votes. After the sequester cuts and the government shutdown, they say the coming argument over the debt ceiling may further damage federal employment.

And — unless politicians change their minds — another round of sequester furloughs is set for next year.

Federal employees “are just folks who were hired to do a job and try to do it,” said Craig Vandervort, who works in Kansas City’s HUD office. “We didn’t create the government or the programs we work on. HUD doesn’t get lots of attention, but we help keep roofs over the heads of millions of senior citizens, handicapped folks and kids.”

Other federal workers make a similar case. Their agencies, they say, perform vital services the public doesn’t always see.

Christine Schmaltz hopes to return to her EPA work as quickly as Congress and the White House will allow.

“Morale’s been down,” she said.

“But everybody bucks up and does their job. It’s not like we’re not going to do our jobs because they’re playing games in Washington.”


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