Civilian furlough would cost a lot more

By RALPH BELANDER | | Published: February 22, 2013

I realize the poor economy and efforts of Congress to demonize the public employee will ensure that few people have sympathy for the furloughed federal employee, regardless of the branch of government. I would like to say a few things in defense of today’s federal employee and mention a few of the pitfalls with the furlough plan.

First, today’s federal employee has gone without a cost of living rise since 2009, so via inflation he makes less today than four years ago. This continuing freeze is estimated to save the federal budget $103 billion over the long term and $11 billion in just 10 years. Meanwhile federal spending on populist “pork projects” continues largely unabated. A 20 percent reduction via furlough will test the resolve of many of our experienced, well-trained personnel as they struggle to complete their missions in less time while their families, in the U.S. and stationed around the world, will struggle to live with smaller budgets.

Second, today’s federal employee likely chose to fill a less-well-paying vacancy in the government during the last 15 years, when contractors and private industry were offering huge salaries and benefits to come on board. In 2003 I turned down a contract job that would have paid more than twice my federal salary because I thought my federal mission was important and that federal service was a noble continuation of my eight years of military service. Now that the economy is poor, those who took the higher paycheck in 2003 are clamoring for the few federal jobs that come open and the public is being whipped up into resentment for our benefits and security — which were only offered to keep up with private industry in the first place.

Third, federal employees have stood side by side our military during the last 15 years. Whether working in a joint military environment in Washington, securing our airports during crisis or deploying around the world from Bosnia to Afghanistan to South Korea, federal civilians from the Department of Defense and other agencies have shared the same missions, worked the same shifts, shared the same hardships and often faced the same hostile fire. Moreover, federal civilians have done it without the tax benefits that their military and contractor counterparts receive. Even in terms of the much-proclaimed federal overtime, midgrade and senior-grade civilians are locked by law into a structure that pays the same hourly wage whether you work 40 hours or 90 hours a week, so there never has been a magic “time and a half” card for deployed civilians.

With that, I think it is worth thinking about the potential longer term effects of this furlough on our federal workforce as we reach the brink:

  • It will negate most of what we have believed about the essential nature of our mission and make us question in the future why we ever worked from 4:30 a.m. to midnight during a crisis.
  • It will place a greater burden on military folks covering the lost time on watches, crisis teams and other extended duties normally supported by civilian workers.
  • It will reduce the recruitment of the type of experienced candidates DOD has long sought to attract.
  • It will accustom a workforce formerly used to 24/7 availability to a new work ethic where people get less pay but expect more time off. As an example, this model is pervasive throughout the French civil service, which has become bloated due to the need to hire additional “full-time” 30-hour-a-week workers.
  • It will decimate morale, especially when our congressional leadership refuses to take a pay cut in the name of the “dignity of office.” (The implication being that a furloughed employee does not fill a position of importance or dignity).
  • It will place several hundred thousand civilians who hold security clearances in jeopardy — as any late payment or major change in financial circumstances must be reviewed and adjudicated by security officials.
  • It will affect some folks far more adversely — as an example, there are some federal employees filling positions overseas who are ineligible for overseas housing allowances purely because of legal technicalities. These employees could literally go bankrupt in a foreign country if they lose the 20 percent of income.
  • Beyond the obvious payroll savings, a furlough will have a still unmeasured financial effect — the cost of replacing those who leave, the cost of additional security reviews, the administrative burden and additional hours worked to administer a furlough are just a few possible hidden costs.

I will close with a “thank you” — to my family, my military and civilian comrades, and those on all sides of the political spectrum who have fought in our corner instead of exploiting public discontent to achieve political gain by demonizing the federal worker.

Ralph Belander is a Department of Defense civilian at RAF Molesworth, United Kingdom.

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