For federal workers stretched thin, pay freeze would be beyond cold

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 7:54 PM

As President Obama and members of Congress move to freeze the pay of federal employees, they should keep people such as Sharon Faison in mind.

She goes to work after she leaves work, from one Sam to another.

Five nights a week, the Social Security disability examiner toils for Sam's Club after her day with Uncle Sam is done.

With two girls and separated, her living expenses are high. She recently needed a $500 loan from the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund to pay rent.

"I'm very, very tired," she said. "I am so ready to stop. I hope I get a promotion. . . . It's hard to maintain two daughters and two jobs. It's very, very hard."

Despite all of the talk about overpaid federal employees, much of it misleading, there are those for whom government work is not enough. They need two jobs.

It doesn't help when they hear Obama pushing the two-year federal pay freeze that the House approved Wednesday. "Lord knows, I need a pay increase," said another two-jobber, Cookie Punch, a 54-year-old Defense Department worker. The Senate will vote on the freeze soon.

But Punch doesn't blame the current boss in chief.

"[George W.] Bush messed it up way before Obama stepped into office," she said. "He's trying to put things back together again."

Leaders of federal employee organizations aren't so charitable.

Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, doesn't understand why Foreign Service officers posted unarmed in dangerous places - often alongside members of the military - will have their pay frozen when military pay is exempted.

Officials at the Office of Management and Budget had no explanation for including war zone Foreign Service officers in the freeze.

"We are serving on the front lines in many dangerous parts of the world, including war zones," Johnson said. "This is not stripped-pants, cookie-pushing diplomacy."

Other employee leaders were even less diplomatic.

"By imposing a two-year freeze on federal employees, it is clear members of Congress are bowing to political pressure stemming from the spread of misinformation relating to both the composition of the federal workforce and the impact instituting a freeze will have on deficit reduction efforts," said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association. "Headlines painting feds as overpaid, underqualified and completely insulated from the recession score points through the promotion of falsehoods based on biased data manipulation. To see lawmakers latch on to these reports as 'fact' is disheartening."

It's also disheartening to low- and moderate-income federal workers who have worked second jobs and who certainly are not isolated from the recession.

Elizabeth Young, a desk clerk at a Patrick Air Force Base day-care center, was in that situation a few years ago when her marriage fell apart.

She got a job working 20 hours a week in retail, making $7.25 an hour. "It's just exhausting. My days seemed never-ending," she said. But the second job was necessary because "not all of us make that much money."

She doesn't include members of Congress in that group. They make $174,000 a year.

"Hit the people who have the money, like the people in Congress," she said. "Let them go without a check for a couple of weeks. They can afford it, I assume."

She also needed a FEEA loan to catch up with car insurance and electric bills. Now, she doesn't need the second gig, she said, because her ex-husband sends money.

Punch makes a decent government wage, but she said it's not enough to allow her ends to meet. For seven of her eight years at the Pentagon, she had a second job. Her last one was caring for senior citizens, bathing them, cleaning their houses.

"It's really, really difficult," she said. "It's really tough to make ends meet."

She sounds close to tears when she describes her situation and said she is on the verge of bankruptcy.

"I don't even know if I'll have to give up my place where I am now," she said, as she talked about renting a room to save money. "I'm just really struggling and having a tough time. There is nothing worse than getting paid and you have $20 left out of your paycheck. That is frustrating. That is very, very frustrating."

She got a $700 FEEA loan to pay her rent. "I can't save $5," she said.

But Punch knows her circumstances could be worse.

As Faison said, "I could have no job, like my girlfriend."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company