For federal employees, 2014 won’t be as bad as 2013, but morale problems linger


A lone worker enters Woodrow Wilson Plaza at Federal Triangle in Washington Oct. 2, 2013. Federal Triangle is occupied by city and federal office buildings. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Joe Davidson
Columnist January 5

This new year doesn’t promise to be especially happy for federal employees, but it won’t be marked by pay cuts and lockouts and hopefully not the violence that marred 2013.

As they begin the first full workweek of 2014, most federal workers have a 1 percent increase in their basic pay rates for the first time in three years. Congress broke form and managed to pass a budget last month, making the uncertainty that hovered over the labor force in recent years — as legislators were unable to complete this basic task — less worrisome.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

This doesn’t herald a great new year, but it looks better than furloughs, shutdowns and killings. One legacy from 2013 could be insidious in 2014 — falling employee morale.

Managing morale will be mission one for managers this year. Making it mission won will be tough.

Congress severely undermined morale last year. Don’t expect it to approve measures boosting it soon. Federal employee lobbyists now focus on restoring lost ground and defending against additional hits.

They are pushing for blue-collar feds to get the same little pay raise others received, increased agency funding and guarding against efforts to lower government contributions to federal employee health insurance. Postal labor leaders will continue their fight against the congressional requirement for the Postal Service to pre-fund health-care benefits for future retirees — a major factor in the agency’s financial struggles.

In addition to a host of pocketbook issues hitting feds last year, it was one of the worst periods of federal workplace violence since the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Twelve people were slain at the Washington Navy Yard in September by a federal contractor with a Remington 870 shotgun who was then killed by police.

That tragedy and pivotal revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the massive electronic surveillance of Americans led Congress and the Obama administration to a continuing examination of the security clearance process. Snowden and the Navy Yard assailant both held clearances.

In November, four people were shot at Los Angeles International Airport by a gunman who targeted Transportation Security Administration employees, killing one TSA officer and wounding two other TSA employees. Later that month, a 26-year-old letter carrier was fatally shot as he delivered mail in the Landover/Cheverly section of Prince George’s County.

“In looking at 2013, it could have been worse, but not much worse,” said Dan G. Blair, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration and a former acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.

One of the things that made last year so bad was the pay cut many federal workers suffered in the form of furlough days because of budget cuts.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he hopes 2013 “will be the last year when we will see the disgusting spectacle” of lowering living standards for the working- and middle-class families of federal employees.

The 16-day partial government shutdown in October was the first time in nearly 18 years that the entire government workforce went unpaid for two weeks. Employees were eventually paid for that time, but not before some found outside jobs, took hardship withdrawals from their retirement plans and became charity cases.

It was a revolting experience that shamed Congress, particularly Republicans, undermined confidence in government and left federal workers with the bad taste of rotting morale.

As Ruthie Jefferson, a Federal Aviation Administration management and program assistant in College Park, Ga., told us at the end of the shutdown: “I am very grateful for my job at this point, but I have lost my confidence in government after this furlough . . . and am now for the first time ever considering leaving the federal government.”

She’s not alone in this, and the falling morale is well documented.

Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results released in November by the OPM show a “resilient” workforce but one experiencing a “significant drop in employee satisfaction.”

One example: Those willing to encourage others to join their agencies fell from 70 percent in 2010 to 63 percent last year.

“This drop contributed to fewer employees recommending their organization as a good place to work,” OPM Director Katherine Archuleta wrote in the survey’s introduction. “Any employer seeing this meaningful level of decline would be very concerned,” she said.

The American taxpayer certainly should be.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

The Federal Diary has moved to this new home in the A section, where it will appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
JoeDavidson
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