Unions, lawmakers react to Post poll on federal workers

By Ed O'Keefe
Monday, October 18, 2010; 6:08 PM

Some of the biggest defenders of federal workers admitted Monday they face the difficult task of reversing negative national perceptions about the federal sector.

A new Washington Post poll found most Americans think federal employees are overpaid and nearly half believe they don't work as hard as private-sector workers. The findings also reported that Republicans are especially critical of federal pay and benefits.

"I'm not entirely surprised, because in other parts of the country the federal workforce isn't as omnipresent as it is here," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), whose Fairfax district is home to more than 100,000 current and retired federal workers. The federal government is the region's dominant employer, with about one in seven of its workers living in the Washington area.

President Obama said last week he would not rule out that federal agencies might have to trim payrolls through attrition or furloughs to save money - ideas Connolly blasted as unhelpful for morale and recruitment efforts.

"I don't think we ought to be doing anything to be scaring people or to make federal employment less attractive," he said, adding that Obama's comments "could be harmful to both morale and productivity."

"The president has the bully pulpit, just as John F. Kennedy did, to remind people that public service is a noble calling," Connolly said. "But you're not going to do that when talking about attrition and furloughs."

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, agreed that the Obama administration could do more to improve public perceptions of federal workers.

"But how many things do you want the Obama administration to take on?" Gage asked. He credited first lady Michelle Obama's tours of federal agencies for casting the national spotlight on federal employees.

"Public opinion on this shifts so fast," Gage said. "I thought maybe five or 10 years ago we'd really turned a corner on the faceless bureaucrat nonsense and that people were appreciating federal employees and the services they provide."

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, called recent political attacks on federal workers "very disheartening," and much worse than in recent election cycles.

"This onslaught has been nonstop, and it's very unfair to federal employees and gives them no recognition for the work they do every day," Kelley said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), ranking member on the House federal workforce subcommittee, said GOP anger about federal workers stems from "a distaste for government, fueled by ineffective, inefficient bureaucracy of the federal government."

"It's not a totally new phenomenon, but it's exacerbated by a poor economy and a president with rhetoric that doesn't match actions," Chaffetz said.

"I only see the U.S. Postal Service taking the right kind of corrective action," he said, citing the mail agency's sharp workforce cuts. "I don't see any other agency or department proactively trying to become more efficient."

Connolly, who also serves on the federal workforce subcommittee, called Republican attacks on federal workers "misleading" and said Chaffetz and his colleagues "don't hesitate to sort of slander by insinuation."

"We have to broaden the discussion levels about who is the federal workforce," he said. "It's people who live in your community, who run your National Parks, provide your Social Security benefits. It's people who do casework and provide all kinds of services that matter to you."

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