Shutdown threatens to change federal workers' outlook on job stability
By TODD C. FRANKEL, TAYLOR TELFORD AND DANIELLE PAQUETTE | The Washington Post | Published: January 15, 2019
WASHINGTON — Three weeks of no pay and lots of uncertainty has changed how aerospace engineer Robert Sprayberry thinks about his job. He joined the Federal Aviation Administration a decade ago because it promised him a stable career with steady hours. He might not earn as much money as he could in the private sector, but he could be home more to help raise three young children.
But that careful career calculation has been undercut by a partial federal government shutdown that on its 25th day is the longest in history, with 800,000 employees not getting paychecks because of a budget impasse over border wall funding. So Sprayberry's wife picks up extra shifts as a nurse to make up for his lost income. And he has started looking around for a new job, this time with a private firm.
"If I'm going to put up with this level of stress," Sprayberry, 38, said, "I might as well get paid for it."
A job in the government has long been underwritten by the understanding that while you wouldn't strike it rich on the federal pay scale, you also didn't need to worry about the corporate world's mercurial whims. The focus was on serving the public, rather than pursuing profits. The pace could be frustratingly inefficient, but it also was not maddeningly chaotic. And the trade-off came with solid health and retirement benefits.
That grand bargain — deployed for decades to lure talent into the government ranks — is threatened today by a bruising shutdown with no end in sight. And this is the third shutdown in one year. The other two shutdowns were brief — the longest ran two days. But they were tremors foreshadowing what was to come. The situation is exacerbated by a president who appears to view many government workers with contempt, deriding the federal bureaucracy as "the Deep State" and noting derisively via tweet that he thinks most government workers are Democrats.
So a government gig suddenly doesn't look quite so secure. The mission is muddied. The bloom is off. And the potential for a federal brain drain — along with drags on recruitment and morale — looms large.
"The end of the shutdown is not the end of the harm," said Max Stier, chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that has surveyed job satisfaction in government agencies for the last 15 years.
Morale at government agencies already was suffering under President Donald Trump's administration, according to the Partnership's 2018 Best Places to Work in Government survey, which found marked declines in job satisfaction since the Obama administration at a range of agencies, including the State and Agriculture departments. Under Trump, the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Homeland Security were among the agencies that saw their poll numbers go up.
Trump's administration imposed a federal hiring freeze and has seen high turnover among key political appointees.
Now, a lingering shutdown is raising tensions. Some federal workers have been forced to return to their jobs without pay. Unions representing Treasury employees and air traffic controllers sued the Trump administration to claim this was wrong. But a federal judge declined to issue an emergency intervention in the case Tuesday.
It's difficult to measure the impact of a shutdown with an annual job satisfaction survey, Stier said. But government rankings took a slight hit during a 17-day government shutdown in 2013.
"It's certainly true that there are real consequences to a shutdown," Stier said.
It was one of the factors that made Aaron Johnson, 26, reconsider his career choice. He is a security guard at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Protecting the artifacts, he said, gave him a sense of purpose and introduced him to people from around the world.
Lost wages have irked Johnson, but it was the president's comments about the federal workforce in recent months that truly pushed him to look for a new job - perhaps in retail.
"As long as he's in office, I need to try to get somewhere where I can feel secure," Johnson said.
Anel Flores, a mission systems engineer at Goddard, the NASA facility in Greenbelt, Maryland, is also tired of Trump's attacks on federal workers. And so when he returns to work - whenever that is - he plans to file for retirement after 36 years at NASA.
"Why do I have to worry about the president throwing another tantrum?" Flores said.
Trump is not the first U.S. president to cast doubts on the federal workforce. President Ronald Reagan famously said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." President Bill Clinton received a report on government reform from his vice president that described federal workers as "good people trapped in a bad system."
But Trump has gone further in suggesting - without proof - that federal workers are working to undermine his administration, said David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who studies the presidency and federal service branch.
The combination of a boss who is denigrating your work and a shutdown with an unknown ending might lead more federal workers to jump ship.
"They'll ask themselves, 'Why am I sacrificing? I could be working in the private sector,'" Lewis said.
Some workers already are testing the waters. An upcoming job fair for workers with security clearances has seen a 20 percent jump in registrations over last year, said Rob Riggins of Cleared Jobs, which is organizing the Jan. 31 event in Tysons Corner, Virginia. He attributed the increase to the shutdown.
"People are getting nervous," Riggins said. "They want to have a contingency plan."
Others are avoiding the federal government from the start. Jim Tierney, who teaches at Harvard Law School, said he's noticed a spike in interest in his state attorneys' general law clinic under Trump. He attributed the change to Trump's frequent attacks on the federal Justice Department and drastic curtailment at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
These fledgling attorneys - some of the best in the country - are looking beyond the familiar hotshot attorney posts with the federal government, Tierney said.
"Traditionally you'd never have Harvard Law grads going to a state AG's office," said Tierney, a former Maine attorney general. "But then they look at what's happening in D.C."
Not every federal agency will suffer equally if workers start looking around for new jobs, said Jeri Buchholz, NASA's head of human resources until she retired three years ago. The FBI will always be the FBI, she said. Astronauts still want to work at NASA. But, she said, economists and attorneys might find plenty of opportunities in the private sector.
The shutdown will hurt recruiting for government jobs, Buchholz said. "If any private company was doing what the federal government is doing right now, they'd lose their reputation and good people wouldn't go to work there."
The shutdown also has made it harder for the government to find new hires - a point of emphasis for agencies such as the Border Patrol. Trump signed an executive order shortly after he took office calling for the agency to hire 5,000 more agents.
Last week, the Border Patrol was supposed to host a recruiting booth at the Houston International Sports Boat and Sports Show. But the shutdown put an end to that. No staff could be spared. The Border Patrol was forced to cancel.