Federal Employees News Digest

When feds feel the need to go incognito…

I have a confession to make.

No, not THAT kind of confession.  No animals were harmed, no one was cheated out of any money, no crimes were committed.  It was fight or flight, and I chose to fib.  And I would do it again. And while in a perfect world you will never have to do it, we all know this is seldom a perfect world. So first the confession. Then the reason why.  And why it, or some version of it, may help you in the not-so-distant future. 

From the mid-1970s and into the 80s when I worked for The Washington Post, I frequently passed myself off as someone else.  While I was in fact a reporter and then a columnist, I frequently told people -- mostly while traveling and outside of DC -- that I was a travel agent or a dentist or even an undertaker.  That may sound like an odd choice, but the undertaker worked best for shutting down unwanted conversations.  Why run the risk?  Why, after trying several bogus trades and professions was the undertaker the best cover? No pun intended.  Two reasons:

First, I didn’t want strangers to know I was part of the media and specifically that I worked for The Washington Post.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved the Post and still do.  But then, as now, there was a strong anti-media movement.  It wasn’t about fake news.  This was long before cable and so many “news” and, yes, fake news outlets, but it was still pretty bad -- and for an extended period.  Some think it started in November 1969 when Vice President Spiro Agnew -- in an address televised by all three major TV networks – attacked what he considered remote, out-of-touch news executives and certain elite TV and print journalists, calling them  “nattering nabobs of negavitism.”

Second, I decided that when traveling (which I did a lot) I would cease being Clark Kent of the Daily Planet (worse yet MC of the Washington Post) and be someone people would like, such as the vet, or fear (a dentist) or not want to engage in conversation: the undertaker.

I used the undertaker thing twice.  The second and last time it bombed because I was on a plane, in a three-person row, with twin brothers who were, you guessed it, undertakers. It was a long flight -- D.C. to San Francisco  -- and I learned my lesson.  Several in fact.  But the undertaker ploy worked for a while, so I pass it on in case you need some version of it to protect yourself in future.

If there was any justice, federal workers, postal employees, IRS staff coming back to process refunds will come out of this COVID-19 crisis as heroes -- like first responders and military people after 9/11.  And they may (should) enjoy that status.  But how long will it last?

According to published reports last week, 10,000 feds, so far, have died from coronavirus.  That high, horrible number makes sense when you think of people working on the front lines in veteran hospitals and federal prisons.  People repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way because, well, that’s what they signed up to do.  New York City cops and firefighters ran INTO the World Trade Centers, again and again, because that’s what they do.  They ran upstairs, while everybody else was evacuating the buildings.  The same happened at the Pentagon when service members, first responders and ordinary people -- workers and passersby -- ran toward the fire.

But there are downsides, as we all know.  Last week, I heard on the radio that already one in six previously employed Americans is now out of a job.  Not furloughed. Not teleworking.  Not working without pay.  The same report said that slightly more than 50% of the people who were getting unemployment were making slightly MORE than they did while working. That sounds like mixed blessing for the long term.

On March 30, The New York Times ran an article about the economic free-fall.  It focused on Iraq, but it applies also to New York, or California or Iowa.  One paragraph was chilling:  “A nationwide curfew, imposed to slow the spread of the virus, has shutdown commerce and thrown the vast majority of nongovernment workers out of their jobs.” 

It could be that Americans will understand why government workers are still on the payroll and why they are so badly needed.

Or not. They may not understand what government service means, so if you feel you must go undercover, so be it.  But take it from me -- use the undertaker defense only if all else has failed.

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