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Fed-up feds: Many decry 'morale-sucking environment'

Oct. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON and SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
AFGE Shutdown Rally MWM 20131004
Federal employees protest the partial government shutdown near the U.S. Capitol. (Mike Morones / Staff)

Shutdown coverage continues

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For federal employees deemed essential enough to work during the shutdown — “excepted” in federal parlance — there is some comfort in knowing they will be paid eventually.

But there is little else to be happy about.

For the duration of the shutdown, employees whose salaries are paid with appropriated funds and who must work will not be paid — instead, they will be paid once the shutdown is ended. Military pay and the pay of some federal civilians and contractors who support military operations will not be delayed during the shutdown, under a law signed Sept. 30 by President Obama.

But for many feds not receiving pay, they are considering emergency financial measures to make ends meet, such as borrowing from their retirement funds, taking out other loans or deferring some financial obligations.

That is forcing many to consider emergency financial measures to make ends meet, such as borrowing from their retirement funds, taking out other loans or deferring some financial obligations.

And because many of their colleagues and team members are being furloughed, their workloads are bigger than usual, and they lack much of the support they are accustomed to.

“Frustration levels are very high,” said Steve Kofahl, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3937 and a claims representative in Seattle. “We’ve been going through a very difficult last several years where tight budgets and increased workloads — record workloads — have put employees under a tremendous amount of stress, and for them now not to be certain they will be paid or the outcome of budget wars, they really don’t see a bright future here.

“I’m afraid we will lose our best people,” said Kofahl, one of hundreds of thousands of feds directed to work without pay last week as agencies scaled back their services and reverted to skeleton crews to carry out tasks deemed essential for agency operations.

Feds across government are echoing similar sentiments, heading into week two of a government shutdown. An estimated 800,000 employees have been sent home without pay since Oct. 1, following Congress’ failure to pass a spending bill for fiscal 2014.

Some employees being required to work during the shutdown have to choose between obligations at work and pressing personal responsibilities, said Witold Skwierczynski, the top union official representing Social Security Administration employees, in an Oct. 1 email to acting SSA Commissioner Carolyn Colvin.

“Your staff has decided that the government shutdown requires the agency to shut down the union,” Skwierczynski, president of the AFGE National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, said in the email. “We are unable to represent the employee in New Mexico who has to choose between her job and her injured child. We are unable to represent the employee in Orlando, Fla., whose wife is dying and requested leave to be at her bedside. SSA’s response is that if the employee leaves the work site they will be considered AWOL (absent without leave) and subject to disciplinary action.”

SSA has furloughed most of the employees in its Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, which conducts hearings when people wish to appeal a denial-of-disability determination, Kofahl said. According to SSA’s contingency plan, 1,973 of the 10,581 staff in that office are excepted employees.

Similarly, employees in SSA’s Office of Quality Performance, which reviews medical decisions made by the disability determination services at the state level, have also been sent home, Kofahl said. Of the 1,096 employees there, all but 12 were furloughed.

Contractors are also feeling repercussions. Consultant Grant Thornton, whose global public sector arm employs about 650 people, has already received agency stop-work orders affecting a “significant percentage” of that staff, said Robert Shea, a principal with the firm. Although no layoffs or furloughs have been needed yet, Grant Thornton will be evaluating the situation week by week, Shea said.

Jean, a GS-9 IT specialist at the Defense Department, said she was notified Monday evening before the shutdown that she would continue working.

“I’m extremely unhappy because I went through this is 1995,” she said. “I have to come into work and not even get paid.”

She’s taking out a second loan to maintain the payments on her home and looking for a second job.

For Jean, who asked that her last name not be published, and many other government employees, the shutdown comes on the heels of a recent furlough that was prompted by the sequester budget cuts. She took a $1,500 pay cut and isn’t ruling out the possibility of more financial hardship if Congress can’t agree on raising the federal debt limit later this month.

“To be quite honest, if I didn’t have children, I think I would move out of this country because I feel government doesn’t care about us,” said Jean, a single mother to two teenage boys. “I’ve been 28 years [in government], starting as a GS-2, worked my way up, and now they just turn their back to me.”

James Schmidt, who is returning to his job as an equipment specialist for the Air Force this week following a stint as a union local president, is working during the shutdown and getting paid, at least while funds are available to pay salaries through a working capital fund. It isn’t clear when that money will run out, he said.

As a father of four, including a son in college, Schmidt is considering leaving government for something more stable. “It’s a really hard decision for me because I really love working for the government.”

He’s not alone.

John Santry, an aircraft sheet metal worker and a local president for AFGE, which represents bargaining employees on Travis Air Force Base in California, said he is seeing a lot of discontent among his colleagues.

“I think people are just frustrated with everything and people that are near the edge of retirement are putting in their paperwork and saying ‘I just can’t live with this instability and this morale-sucking environment,’ ” he said.

It takes years for maintainers to learn the intricacies of an aircraft, and “to have all that experience walk out the door because of frustrations of Congress’ inability to do their job is going to be detrimental to our job,” he said.

That’s on top of the Pentagon’s plans for reductions in force this year based on $487 billion in long-term spending reductions set in motion two years ago, and more RIFs could ensue if spending continues at the existing benchmark. DoD Comptroller Robert Hale declined to say how many employees could be affected.

“For the next 10 years, is this what they’re looking at?” Santry said of federal employees.

Elaine Abernathy, a medical support assistant at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., said, “I am one of these folks that have been spared, so to speak, [but] there were quite a few who have been furloughed.” She is responsible for booking appointments for minor procedures.

“You have some people who are in the same type of job, the same job series that are getting paid and others that are not,” she said. “They are deeming some jobs to be more essential than others.

“To expect people to come in with happy smiling faces and be glad to be back at work with no pay, I think is unrealistic,” she said.

While Abernathy said she is grateful to be working and knows she will eventually be paid, there is no certainty of when that paycheck will come. Abernathy and her partner of 10 years have decided to postpone their October wedding until the shutdown is resolved.

Paid annual leave and sick leave will not be honored for employees like Abernathy. She broke her foot over a month ago while on the job but will not be granted sick leave for her doctor’s appointment. “I have said, if there is some young person wanting to get into civil service, unless they’re a nurse, doctor or licensed professional, don’t do it, it’s too uncertain,” she said.

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