Federal Employees News Digest

How to do 30 years in government without losing your marbles

Do you have a friend, a relative or child just starting out in government?  Or do you know somebody who, having checked the pandemic-influenced job market, thinks that working for Uncle Sam could be the smart move?  If so, you might want to tell them that while benefits and job security look good these days, the job comes with a certain amount of mental stress -- a condition sometimes known as Nervous in the Civil Service.  Most federal-postal workers suffer from it at some point in their careers.  For some, the stress passes, but for others it is like a severe, debilitating migraine that strikes several times each month.  Hopefully this advice will help.

A job is a job, as my old uncle used to say.  When people complained about certain chores, tasks or whatever, he would usually say, “That’s why they call it work.” Meaning: It’s what you do/tolerate to get a check.  Point taken. With exceptions….

Some occupational groups are used to being reviled, even hated.  Used car dealers, landlords, politicians, lawyers… journalists. And many would say that nobody forces anybody to become a politician, pundit, student of the law or car salesman. But many people dislike federal workers not for what they do (like collect taxes, control air traffic or handle Social Security claims) so much as for what they are:  bureaucrats. They don’t even care that government workers put their lives on the line or dedicate their careers to saving ours.  Feds are easy targets because they are everywhere, don’t have much political clout  and are easy scapegoats when their board of directors (the House and Senate) or their CEO (the president) decide to open up a can of whoop-ass on their career staff -- often to draw attention away from some mistake they made but blame on civil servants.

Longtime feds know this is true. And it is bipartisan: Democratic as well as Republican members of the House and Senate have referred to federal agents -- doing their jobs -- -as jack-booted thugs.

Members of both political parties, at different times when convenient, have accused the CIA, FBI and IRS of being political.  Ask people who work for Interior, State, the intelligence community, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most recently the Food and Drug Administration -- now characterized as members of the “deep state” -- what it’s like to be kicked by the bosses.  At the IRS, politicians cut budget and staff, then castigate the agency for not collecting from deadbeats.  The U.S. Postal Service is knocked for being slow, but then overtime is eliminated, pickup boxes removed and perfectly good machines capable of processing 40,000 pieces of mail an hour are dismantled and tossed in warehouses. Gotta be frustrating.

So I cobbled together the following tips, which may help some new, mid-career and even old-timers finish out their days as government employees, navigating the roadblocks commonly facing those doing time with the government. Feds should keep in mind that many threats will fizzle and that they will be (eventually) reimbursed for their troubles.

Furloughs: During the course of their careers, feds will be threatened with being furloughed.  Often it doesn’t happen, but when it does, some will be forced to work (with no pay) and some will be locked out of their offices (also with no pay).  In the end, almost without exception, Congress and/or the White House -- which caused the furlough because they failed to do their jobs on time -- will order that ALL those furloughed -- those who worked and those not allowed to work -- will get paid. Experienced feds have learned to consider it an unplanned but bonus vacation.  Because many furloughs come at the end of the year -- around Christmas – it’s important to have an emergency stash of cash.  Furloughs aren’t political in the sense that both political parties trigger them when it is to their advantage. Members of Congress and White House aides are not furloughed (or denied pay) during furloughs.  Like so many things in government, the rules are for you, not them! 

Hatch Act:  The Hatch Act was enacted 80-plus years ago. It bans on-the-job-political activity by federal and postal workers.  The “no politics” law has been modified several times, tested in court, and both parties have used – and abused -- it to their advantage.  A few feds have been fired, some suspended, or fined for violations, but it generally speaking is not a big deal.  Violation of it is often as much a matter of partisan stupidity as it is partisan tactics.  Bottom line: The Hatch Act is for regular federal works –  not their political bosses who violate it all the time. Occasionally political appointees wind up before a congressional committee (run by the other party), but they are rarely punished or dismissed.  Mostly the law covers you, not them.

Hiring freezes:  From time to time Congress, or more often a new president, will freeze federal hiring, usually to save money or just to sock it to bureaucrats. Then almost immediately “key” operations are exempted. The list usually includes staff at the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security,  Veterans Affairs, Interior (national parks), Commerce (the National Weather Service) and Treasury (the IRS) and of course law enforcement, air traffic control, customs and immigration along with food, meat and plant inspections.  Pretty soon, the exempt list is much, much bigger than the freeze list.  Over time you’ll learn to outlast it.

Pot shots: A regular feature of a fed’s time in government -- be it six months or 60 years -- is attacks detailing how poorly, or criminally, an agency is doing its job.

Idle threats: Feds should remember that many of the worst threats don’t happen. Case in point:  For weeks the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been facing furloughs of 13,400 workers -- during a pandemic, no less.  The issue was $1.2 billion in emergency funding at time when Congress and the White House have been writing relief checks, for TRILLIONS, to citizens, business and plenty of scam artists.  The furloughs were due to begin Aug. 30.  Guess what?  Those who have been around awhile were not surprised. The agency found enough funding to avoid the furloughs through the end of the current fiscal year.

Long time-feds will not be surprised. Disgusted, yes, but not surprised. Younger, less-cynical feds should be reassured that while all these situations can be serious and stressful, most clear themselves up.

Hang in there! 



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