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Federal Eye
Posted at 05:55 PM ET, 05/12/2011

At town hall, federal worker losing her job confronts Obama

Updated 5:55 p.m. ET

A federal employee who is on the verge of losing her job confronted President Obama about her status during a CBS News town hall meeting broadcast Thursday morning.

And by the end of the day, she’d heard back from the White House.

Karin Gallo, a spokeswoman for the National Zoo, told Obama that she’s four weeks away from losing her job because of budget cuts.

“Just under three years ago, I took a job with the federal government, thinking it was a secure job,” Gallo told Obama during the town hall, which was taped Wednesday afternoon at the Newseum.

Gallo, who is seven months pregnant, told Obama that she and her husband are also building a new house. (Watch video of the exchange above or here.)

“I’m stressed, I’m worried. I’m scared about what I — what my future holds. I definitely need a job. And — I just wonder what would you do, if you were me?

“Where were you working?” Obama asked her.

“The National Zoo. And — I would be non-essential employee number seven,” Gallo said.

“Workers like you, for the federal, state, and local governments are so important for our vital services,” Obama said. “And it frustrates me sometimes when people talk about ‘government jobs’ as if somehow those are worth less than private sector jobs. I — I think there’s nothing more important than — working on behalf of the American people.”

“Well, I — I thought that — I’d be more important and secure,” Gallo said, cutting him off.

“I agree with you,” he said. “I think the challenge has been that — in some of these negotiations to try to reduce the deficit I think the feeling — particularly on the part of — some folk — on the other side of the aisle has been that we want to just cut and cut and cut. And that somehow is going to create economic growth.”

Obama said that the unemployment rate remains high partly because local, state and federal agencies are laying off employees. He noted that he froze the pay of West Wing staffers when he took office and imposed a two-year federal pay freeze last year.

“The reason we did that was so we don’t have to cut as many workers — as we try to get control of our debt and our deficit,” Obama said.

Though he didn’t promise to investigate her status, Obama suggested they should speak after the town hall.

Though they didn’t speak again at the Newseum, Gallo exchanged contact information with Obama aide Reggie Love. By midday Thursday, she got a call from White House Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco .

“The first thing she said to me is that ‘I got your information from the president and I’m calling and wanted to know how you’re doing and how can I help you,’” Gallo said Thursday.

“I totally appreciate that she did that … It’s good to know that the president is a man of his word,” she added.

Mastromonaco confirmed her conversation with Gallo, saying in an e-mail that "We had a nice talk."

Gallo attended the town hall at the invitation of CBS News and said she didn’t seek permission from her bosses.

“I didn’t go there to throw the Zoo under the bus. I had an opportunity to ask the president what’s happening with me,” she said.

Gallo and six other Zoo employees are slated to lose their jobs at the beginning of June because of a $500,000 operating deficit, according to Carol Fiertz, the zoo’s associate director of finance and administration. The layoffs are necessary because personnel costs have climbed in recent years without sufficient budget increases, she said.

“Clearly everyone is trying to achieve a targeted savings in fiscal year 2012,” Fiertz said. “We’re one federal unit trying to live within our means.”

Fiertz couldn’t say whether there’s any chance of Gallo and her six colleagues keeping their jobs now that Obama is aware of the situation.

“What we would hope that somehow magic happens for all of the seven people in all of the seven positions,” she said.

At the beginning of fiscal 2011, the Zoo employed 228 federal employees and 36 workers whose salaries are paid by trusts and contracts funded by outside donors, according to Fiertz. Dozens of maintenance staffers and zoo police officers who also work at the zoo are paid out of the Smithsonian Institution’s budget.

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Here’s a transcript of Gallo’s exchange with Obama:

KARIN GALLO: About three years ago, just under three years ago, I took a job with the federal government, thinking it was a secure job. Recently I’ve been told I’m being laid off as of June 4th. And it is not an opportune time for me, I am seven months pregnant in a high-risk pregnancy, my first pregnancy. My husband and I are in the middle of building a house. We’re not sure if we’re going to be completely approved. I’m not exactly in a position to waltz right in and -- and do great on interviews, based on my timing with the birth. And -- so, I’m stressed, I’m worried. I’m scared about what I -- what my future holds. I definitely need a job. And -- I just wonder what would you do, if you were me? (LAUGH)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Karin -- first of all -- I think you’ll do great on interviews, just based on -- the way you asked the question. And congratulations on --

KARIN GALLO: Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- on the new one coming.

KARIN GALLO: Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Where were you working?

KARIN GALLO: The National Zoo. And -- I would be non-essential employee number seven. (LAUGH)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well -- look, I -- let me -- let me just first of all say that -- workers like you for the federal, state, and local governments are so important for our vital services. And in -- and it frustrates me sometimes when people talk about “government jobs” as if somehow those are worth less than private sector jobs. I -- I think there’s nothing more important than -- working on behalf of the American people. And --

KARIN GALLO: Well, I -- I thought that -- I’d be more important and secure.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I -- I agree with you. I think the challenge has been that -- in some of these negotiations to try to reduce the deficit I think the feeling -- particularly on the part of -- some folks -- on the other side of the aisle has been that we want to just cut and cut and cut. And that somehow is going to create economic growth. Now, the truth of the matter is, our biggest problem when it comes to jobs right now is not in the private sector. We’ve been creating a lot of private sector jobs.

The reason the unemployment rate is still as high as it is, in part, is because there have been huge layoffs of government workers at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers -- they have really taken it -- in the chin over the last several months. And so, what we’re trying to do is to see if we can stabilize the budget.

For awhile, for example -- people were a little frustrated with me when I said, “We needed to freeze federal pay.” Now, we already freezed pay over in the White House, as my aides can testify, they haven’t gotten a raise since they came in. But we imposed the federal freeze and some folks were upset. The reason we did that was so we don’t have to cut as many workers -- as we try to get control of our debt and our deficit.

But -- my main message to you is that the work you’ve done -- at the National Zoo’s important. Every child that you see who comes by and is amazed by those animals, you know, they’re benefiting from your work. I don’t want to sort of -- find out more details in front of everybody about what your status is. But -- we can have a conversation may -- maybe afterwards.

I do want to make a larger point to people, though, that folks like Karin provide vital services. And so, when we have discussions about how to cut our debt and our deficit in an intelligent way, we have to make sure that the -- we understand this is not just -- a matter of numbers, these are people --

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: But in 20 --

PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- behind these decisions.

HARRY SMITH: But in 20 seconds, assume the economy -- improved dramatically. Say in the next year or two.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.

HARRY SMITH: Would Karin get her job back?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I would hope so. I mean --

(OVERTALK)

HARRY SMITH: But in reality?

(OVERTALK)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Because -- because part of my argument is that we’re having to make some decisions about cuts to federal programs now, but also states and local governments are making these decisions, on programs that often times are doing a lot of good. I mean, these are good things. You know? So, everybody has a tendency to think that somehow government is all waste and if we just sort of got rid of all the waste -- well, that somehow we would solve our debt and our deficit.

In fact, most of the government services that people get are ones they really like. Social Security, Veterans Affairs, our military, our -- the help we give in terms of law enforcement, preventing terrorist attacks, making sure our food is safe, making sure that our national parks and -- are functioning. I mean, those are all things that all of us appreciate and care about. Well, that’s what our government does. And so, these are not abstract questions. And -- and I think Karin -- makes it really clear that -- there are real consequences when we make these decisions.

KARIN GALLO: Yes.

Read the full transcript of Obama’s town hall here.

By  |  05:55 PM ET, 05/12/2011

Categories:  Workplace Issues, Budget

 
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