Government workers anxious about furloughs but also effects of bashing


A sampling of homes in the Mantua neighborhood of Fairfax County, which has a high number of government employees. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
February 28, 2013

No one would mistake Mantua, a leafy section of Fairfax County where houses sell in the $700,000 range, for a factory town, but where Jenny Foo lives, almost everyone’s paycheck comes from the same place.

Foo, who spent her career at the State Department, lives across from someone who worked at the Food and Drug Administration and another who had a career in the U.S. Geological Survey and just up from a couple of military families. Around the corner, there’s a National Park Service historian, a Pentagon analyst and a Foreign Service diplomat.

In Mantua, 14 miles west of the Federal Triangle, the sledgehammer of budget cuts scheduled to hit today are a threat to financial stability, an unnecessary reminder of a political system that seems unable to solve problems, and, perhaps worst of all, a symbol of how dramatically perceptions of government work have shifted.

For most of their lives, federal workers in Mantua say, having “United States Treasury” atop their paycheck meant security, pride and a sense of mission. Things change: Now it means having to defend yourself against arguments, from strangers and even from your own relatives, that you’re an overpaid and underworked leech. And in these days of political paralysis, it means that that paycheck suddenly isn’t so secure anymore.

“I can’t even be sure that my pension check will get here,” said Foo, who recently retired after 36 years at State, working on passports, issuing travel warnings, handling sensitive cases of Americans in trouble abroad. “People at OPM [the Office of Personnel Management] have to cut the checks, and if they’re on furlough, maybe the checks don’t come through. It’s going to affect everybody, filter down beyond us. No pension, no spending, it all trickles down.”

How sequestration will impact federal departments

As worried as many federal workers are about what a furlough might do to their monthly budgets, some are equally bothered by the growing sense that the careers they chose may now seem unattractive, even unworthy. For the college-educated of Mantua, the federal government was a place to put their smarts to work in service of country. But many of their children have decided that government work isn’t worth the aggravation.

Foo’s son scrapped public service after a summer internship in the government; he works for Dell now. Her daughter is a teacher overseas.

“I don’t know if people will want to go into the government the way it’s thought of now,” Foo said. “For us in the ’70s, it was about security and availability. It wasn’t the highest paid of jobs, but the pay was guaranteed and you couldn’t get laid off.”

“It’s an extremely threatening and highly insulting condition to find myself in,” said a National Defense University professor who lives in Mantua and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his high-level security clearance. “It’s one thing to hear the constant negative drumbeat directed at federal workers from people outside Washington. It’s another thing to have the threat of denial of livelihood.”

In his family, after four generations of military service, there was little question that he would go into public work. And for three decades, he’s loved his job teaching political science to the nation’s future top brass, despite the expectation that he work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. And he gets the frustration that people beyond the D.C. region feel with politicians. But on a recent visit to Missouri, he got fed up with ritual denunciations of federal workers, and he put a group of complaining citizens through a tough line of questioning:

“You don’t want the highways?” he vented. “You’re against food inspections? You farmers don’t need the help from the Agriculture Department? You want to get rid of the people who protect you from terrorists?”

That felt pretty good, but he’s under no illusion that he changed minds. Federal workers say they share the rest of the country’s frustration with declining standards of living, dim prospects for the next generation and political division. But they don’t see what good could come of putting federal workers on furlough when the economy’s in such a fragile state.

The professor has already cut back in anticipation of the forthcoming budget slashing: He told a carpenter who was going to build bookshelves in the living room that the $5,000 job will have to be put off, and he told his doggie day care provider that he’ll have to go without that service when the furloughs kick in.

Even those workers who don’t expect to take a direct hit are feeling the pain of the automatic cuts that Congress set up in a failed effort to get themselves to address the nation’s budget woes.

“My understanding is that there’s no impact on my employment this year,” said Raymond Won, an engineering manager at the Energy Department’s Office of Science, the nation’s largest supporter of the basic research in physical sciences that can result in innovations in the private sector. “But there’s immediate impact on the work I do. What sequestration is doing is preventing the start on new-generation equipment that will create the next wave of American jobs.”

Won, a federal worker for 31 years, resents the notion, now commonplace on talk radio and Web sites devoted to bashing the government, that federal workers carry a lighter load than their for-profit counterparts.

“My batting average is 1.000,” he said. “I take great pride in that, and I am relentless in delivering on time and below cost estimates. Of course, there are things the government could probably do without; there’s always waste and fraud. But there are parts of the government that conduct work with extreme excellence. And be careful how much you bash federal workers because if you don’t attract good talent, then don’t be surprised if government becomes much worse than it is today.”

That worry about what comes after the bashing is especially on the minds of older government workers, who are concerned about their pensions but even more anxious about why politicians are so willing to make federal employees the target of popular rage.

Garret Albert, a retired government engineer whose wife still works at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, understands that pensions, once considered routine, have become a wild luxury in the private sector, so when many Americans hear that public employees still get retirement pay, they can get frustrated, even jealous.

“I realize that since the government doesn’t produce money-making things, it’s easier to disparage the work,” he said. “And a lot of other professions are disparaged too. But it seems so short-sighted to allow a very small minority of vociferous people to sway politicians into taking such discouraging actions.”

Working for Uncle Sam was never meant to be a path to prosperity, and in Mantua, the ranches and split-levels, good-sized houses on large lots, make it hard to recall that this kind of 1960s development was no lap of luxury back when federal workers moved in. This was the sort of place that stretched the bounds of suburbia and stretched the idea of what a middle-class salary could buy.

Today, many federal workers in Mantua say their children couldn’t possibly afford to live here, especially the ones who have followed in their parents’ footsteps and joined the military or civil service. The younger generation finds itself farther afield, in Manassas or Woodbridge or at the wrong end of an anguishing commute to Stafford County.

Such is the price of the affluence that pumped Fairfax real estate prices into the stratosphere over the past quarter-century.

But in Mantua, in what is rapidly becoming a NORC — a naturally occurring retirement community — the older federal workers and recent retirees aren’t content to think about how much value their properties have gained through the years. Rather, they look back on their years of service and wonder if this is the end, a pivot away from the idea that working for your country is something honorable and stable.

Jenny Foo spent her last years at State working on tough cases, such as bringing home the remains of American contractors who had been taken hostage in Iraq. The work involved late nights and extra days, but it was work that she thought her fellow Americans would want her to be doing. “It was never eight hours’ work,” she said.

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