Correction to This Article
The How to Deal column in the June 4 Jobs section incorrectly said that federal employees under the Civil Service Retirement System also get Social Security benefits. It also said that federal employees get an annual cost-of-living increase. Some do, but most receive an annual pay raise set by Congress and the president.
How to Deal

Weighing the Pros and Cons of a Federal Job

Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 4, 2009; 12:00 AM

It takes so long to land a job in the federal government, even though they keep saying there are so many new ones coming open. What are some of the advantages to working for the federal government?

The primary advantages of working for the federal government are generous benefits, solid pay, and relative job security, a combination that is challenging to find in the private sector, even in the best of times.

The Office of Personnel Management provides a comprehensive overview of federal employee benefits on its website, Some key benefits of federal employment are:

  • Health Care. The Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) offers the widest selection of health care plans of any U.S. employer. Federal employees also have access to vision and dental plans, life insurance, flexible spending accounts, and long-term care plans.
  • Paid Time Off. Federal employees enjoy liberal amounts of paid time off, including thirteen days of sick leave per year, ten paid federal holidays, and thirteen to twenty-six days of paid vacation, depending on years of service.
  • Retirement Benefits. Federal employees have access to retirement benefits through the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). Under both plans, retired employees receive an annuity, which is calculated based on years of service and "high three" average pay. The annuity is complemented by Social Security benefits and participation in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which offers 401(k)-type investment options. Retired federal employees also have the option of continuing health benefits at the same monthly cost that they paid before retirement.
  • Family-Friendly Policies. Another notable benefit of federal employment is family-friendly policies, including flexible work schedules, telecommuting, part-time jobs, and job sharing. Not to mention the fact that federal employees enjoy first priority and subsidies at a number of top-notch day care facilities, including on-site day care.

In addition to these benefits, federal employees, contrary to popular belief, are paid relatively well. Federal salaries are set with regard to the market as well as local cost of living differences, which allows them to remain at least somewhat competitive. Federal jobs are classified in one of fifteen successively higher pay grades, and each pay grade is divided into ten steps. In addition to receiving an annual cost-of-living increase, federal employees are practically guaranteed periodic within-grade pay raises.

Unlike their private sector counterparts, federal employees cannot be unceremoniously fired from one day to the next. They can formally challenge personnel decisions by making an appeal to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which has authority to review a wide range of matters, including removals, lengthy suspensions, reductions in grade or pay, denials of within-grade salary increases, and denials of restoration or reemployment rights. Federal government employees do not enjoy absolute immunity from RIFs and firings, but they do count upon the protection of detailed procedural requirements and the right to legitimately appeal the vast majority of important personnel decisions.

Yet, that is not to say that federal government employment is without its drawbacks. From the outside, one might assume the federal government suffers from an overabundance of protective bureaucracy in its management of personnel, which can frustrate the rapid progression of high-performing employees, but which also leads to greater consistency and fairness. This is a misconception. I hear from many federal sector employees who are just as indignant about management as their private sector counterparts. The federal government, as it turns out, has its fair share of bullies, sycophants, and incompetents who pick on employees, display favoritism, mismanage operations, and find creative ways to manipulate the rules to their advantage. I have heard of good employees who mysteriously develop incorrigible performance problems following a change in management; I have been told of positions that are created with particular individuals in mind and of people who are fast-tracked for promotion based upon personal relationships rather than qualifications.

Many of the workplace issues that we readily attribute to the decay of corporate culture are just a product of human nature. By the same token, you are sure to find just as many inspired and supportive leaders in your federal career as you would in any thriving corporation.

There is no denying the fact that federal employment offers benefits and job security unrivaled by any U.S. employer. Just don't fool yourself into believing that it is a ticket to workplace nirvana.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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