It takes a special kind of person to really appreciate the Consumer Price Index.
The CPI measures inflation, and lots of folks pay attention to it when the number (a 0.4 percent decrease in April) is released each month.
But for Ed Pratt, the index is more than a stat. He talks about it like a proud daddy, perhaps a proud granddaddy, given his age.
Pratt didn’t invent the CPI and he is far from the only one involved in producing the report. But with 57 years of service with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which issues the data, he has a right to feel a deep sense of satisfaction with his work on a key economic indicator. The importance of the work is demonstrated by the locked doors that block his section of offices in a building across from Union Station.
“I like to see the CPI come out every month. I’m very proud of that, being part of that,” said Pratt, a BLS supervisory IT specialist.
He helps process data on the prices of the many items collected by about 400 people from stores across the nation. The items fall into 200 categories of goods and services, from haircuts and funerals to
T-shirts, beer and chicken.
One of the things Pratt likes most about his job is the people he works with, his colleagues.
But when you get to be 80 years old, many of your old friends aren’t around anymore.
“Most of the people I used to work with here are gone,” said Pratt, who started with BLS in 1956. “My friendship that I used to have with a lot of people . . . we used to go to ball games and stuff like that, they’re gone. So working takes up that for me.”
Including four years in the military, Pratt has 61 years of federal service.
He’s seen a lot during that time.
When the native Washingtonian started with the agency, Dwight Eisenhower was president and no one had a computer, much less one in their pockets. Now a Fort Washington resident, the big ’Skins fan is married with three children and three grandkids.
Pratt’s importance as a civil servant goes beyond the product he helps produce each month. His personal impact, the encouragement he gives co-workers, means more than he probably knows.
Stephan Gilbert was a government contractor when he started working with Pratt years ago. It was then that Pratt told Gilbert: “You will be somebody someday.”
Gilbert is now Pratt’s boss and gives Pratt credit for that early encouragement.
“He may not understand the power of that one statement he made to me many years ago,” Gilbert said. Pratt’s comment was “very motivational and that’s what he still does today.”
Whenever there is a problem, Gilbert said, Pratt’s response is to find a way to get it done “and he always delivers.”
When Pratt started at the agency as a messenger, “BLS was mostly clerical,” he said. “All the processing of the statistical data was done by clerks.” By 1961, the agency was using big computers with punch cards, and when he became a computer operator in 1965 the machines were “big, clumsy looking, tape drives. They took up a lot of space and they needed a lot of air conditioning.”
Segregation was still practiced in the nation’s capital in the 1950s, but Pratt said he didn’t experience that in the federal workplace.
“There was discrimination, yes,” he said, seemingly not eager to elaborate. He recalled having to take a test in order to be a computer operator when he moved from the clerical unit, a requirement apparently not placed on white colleagues.
“All I want to say about that,” he added, is “maybe everyone who switched didn’t have to take the test.”
Now Pratt is a GS-14, near the top of the General Schedule grades for federal employees. He has his own office, though they should give him one with a window.
“I have a job I really like,” he said. “The Bureau is a good place to work. The people are good. . . . I like making sure that index comes out every month.”
He’s planning to do that for untold months to come.
“If my health holds up,” he said, “I don’t plan to retire.”
President Obama’s choice of Katherine Archuleta as director of the Office of Personnel Management would make her the first Hispanic to hold that position.
“We’re encouraged,” said Gilbert Sandate, chairman of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government. “It’s about time there’s been a Hispanic named to that post.”
Archuleta, who must be confirmed by the Senate, was national political director of the Obama campaign and former Labor secretary Hilda Solis’s chief of staff.
It’s not clear how much she knows about federal personnel issues.
One issue she will face is the under-representation of Latino’s in the federal workforce. OPM data indicate the overall federal employment of Hispanics dropped from fiscal year 2008 to 2012, when Latinos were just 3.2 percent of the Senior Executive Service.
“This is not something that can be tackled and resolved easily,” Sandate said. “She certainly has her work cut out for her.”
Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.