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In 2013, Federal Workers Found New Reason To Be Unhappy

Cindy VanDerwerker, a maintenance worker at Saratoga National Historical Park, clears leaves from a walkway on Oct. 17 in Stillwater, N.Y.
Mike Groll
Cindy VanDerwerker, a maintenance worker at Saratoga National Historical Park, clears leaves from a walkway on Oct. 17 in Stillwater, N.Y.

Elizabeth Lytle is an administrative program assistant with the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago — "a glorified name for a secretary," she says.

If Lytle isn't thrilled with her title, she's even less enamored of her job.

"The morale is just unbelievably low because we're never recognized," Lytle says. "Management doesn't seem to go to bat for us."

Lytle could come off as just a disgruntled employee, if her comments weren't in keeping with the findings of a survey released last week by the Partnership for Public Service, which found job satisfaction among federal workers at an all-time low.

There are reasons for federal employees to be unhappy. Thanks to sequestration, most have taken unpaid furlough days and work for agencies that are under de facto hiring freezes. This is the first year government employees have received an across-the-board pay raise since 2010 — Obama signed an executive order Monday to bump up base pay by 1 percent.

The survey was taken before this fall's partial government shutdown, during which 800,000 federal workers sat idle at home for more than two weeks. They were paid retroactively, but not before many heard themselves and their functions widely denigrated.

"Feds took a pounding this year," says Paul Light, an expert in public sector management at New York University. "The rhetoric from the House was downright hostile, but even the Democrats were either stunningly silent or harsh."

Feds Lack Fans

As Light notes, anger about "big government" remains potent. A Gallup poll released this month showed that 72 percent of Americans viewed big government as a threat to the country's future.

That was a record high in the half-century history of the question, and it compared to 21 percent who felt threatened by big business and 5 percent worried about big labor.

"When you ask people whether they want more government or less government, they always say less government," says Steve Billet, chief of staff of the George Washington University Graduate School of Public Management. "So it's pretty natural for them to be pretty critical of people who work in government."

Close Enough For Government Work

Americans don't despise all government workers. People understand and generally admire what teachers, police and firefighters do.

But those jobs are in local government. In the case of the feds, much of the work either has to do with enacting or supporting policies that often don't touch the public directly. That's why so much of the media coverage of the shutdown focused on shuttered national parks, as opposed to delayed plans at NASA or HUD.

At EPA, for example — which saw the largest drop in employee morale among large agencies this year — the bulk of the work is devoted to supporting state environmental departments. Members of the public may or may not support its policies, but much of what EPA does is largely invisible to them.

"Let's face it — it's not the most desirable job out there," Billet says. "Parents don't raise their kids to be bureaucrats."

No Help From Above

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees union, says most federal workers are dedicated to their jobs and the work they're doing.

"We chose to be civil servants," he says. "We understood we were not going to get rich."

But federal workers aren't getting a lot of help from their employer, Cox says. Even when Congress has made allowances in areas such as telecommuting or flexible schedules, most agencies have been slow to adopt them.

In addition, while President Obama has been supportive of government solutions to issues such as health care and banking regulation, he has not been a notably vocal supporter of government workers. Even though his 2008 election was expected to kindle an interest in public service among the young, that hasn't played out.

"Obama said almost nothing to give feds a boost and missed a couple of big opportunities to raise questions about contracting out [services] — Edward Snowden and," says Light, the NYU public service professor.

'Golden Handcuffs'

For all their grousing, federal workers enjoy certain advantages over their private-sector counterparts.

There are studies that argue that federal workers earn either more or less than those working for private companies — generally speaking, the most-skilled workers earn less, while some less-skilled jobs pay better in government — but it's clear that federal workers enjoy greater job security.

Nearly all of the dip in public-sector employment in recent years has come from the state and local workforce. Statistically, federal workers — at least at some agencies — are more likely to die in a given year than to be fired.

It's the very lack of turnover that may be driving much of the morale problem among federal workers, suggests Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

"Extremely low turnover could be one cause of the unhappiness," he suggests. "People get sick and tired of the same colleagues and environment decade after decade."

It's not just that overfamiliarity can breed contempt. Federal employees enjoy decent pensions and generous health benefits — perks they may be loathe to give up, turning them into "golden handcuffs," Edwards says.

"They're there for the salaries and benefits," he says. "They're not there because the jobs make them happy."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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