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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story, including in the print editions of The Washington Post, incorrectly said that a gunman killed two Pentagon police officers in March. The two officers were only wounded. The article also incorrectly described an upcoming election in which airport baggage screeners will choose a union to represent them. The screeners will choose between the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, not between the AFGE and the Transportation Security Administration. This version has been corrected.

Top 2010 stories about the federal civilian workforce

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 8:11 AM

Happy new year!

Let's begin 2011 with a look at the top 2010 stories about the federal civilian workforce. Last year was a mixed bag for federal employees, and the biggest news wasn't good for them.

Just as the holiday season was getting underway, President Obama announced a two-year pay freeze for most federal workers. "Getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifices, and that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government," he said.

The freeze was in line with calls that Republicans made earlier in the year, but federal employee unions strongly criticized it. Congress approved the freeze in late December and it took effect this month.

Pay, staffing freeze

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a group Obama created to address the national deficit, rocked the federal employee world by recommending a three-year freeze on government pay and cuts in the workforce. The recommendations, which probably will form the basis of congressional debates this year, call for a 10 percent cut in staffing by 2020, an increase in employee health insurance fees and smaller retirement benefits.

GOP effect

The November congressional elections will have an important effect on federal employees, with Republicans now controlling the House. Many of the newcomers to Congress ran on platforms that call for smaller government and workforce cutbacks. The new House speaker, John A. Boehner (Ohio), may have foreshadowed what government workers can expect from his chamber with these remarks he made in an August speech: "It's just nonsense to think that taxpayers are subsidizing the fattened salaries and pensions of federal bureaucrats who are out there right now making it harder to create private-sector jobs."

Violence

Verbal fed bashing is one thing, but violence against federal workers is another. In January, a gunman killed a U.S. courthouse security guard and wounded a deputy marshal. In February, a suicidal man angry with the Internal Revenue Service flew his plane into an Austin building, killing an employee. In March, two Pentagon police officers were wounded by a man before he was fatally shot. In December, a Border Patrol officer was killed in a shootout near Nogales, N.M.

Pay debate

Debates about federal pay escalated during 2010, with some Republicans, conservative think tanks and newspapers using figures indicating that government employees are overpaid. In certain cases, the figures were attributed to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, even though the BEA says its figures don't account for distortions caused by the concentration of federal jobs in higher-level positions, among other things. The Federal Salary Council, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says private-sector employees make on average 24 percent more than federal workers in comparable positions.

Hiring

Repairs to the federal hiring process, widely described as broken, began with a presidential memorandum Obama issued in May. It is designed to speed and simplify the hiring process and moves the government to a resume-based system, instead of one that relies on essays covering an applicant's knowledge, skills and abilities.

Vilsack's mistake

The 2010 award for how not to treat a government employee goes to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

He fired Shirley Sherrod, who is black, on the basis of videotaped excerpts that appeared to indicate that she had not provided full service to a white farmer in a job she had before joining the government. Vilsack apologized to Sherrod and offered to reinstate her after the full video showed that she really was describing her transformation away from prejudice. She ended up helping the farmer, who became one of her strongest supporters.

"The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It's always about money, y'all," she said in a full airing of her remarks on the tape. "God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. I've come a long way."

Sherrod declined to return to Agriculture.

Intern program ends

Obama ordered an end to the controversial Federal Career Intern Program and created new "student pathways" into government with an executive order last month. Agencies had misused the program, according to labor organizations and a November ruling by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Telecommuting

After years of conferences and reports on the subject, Congress approved telework legislation in November. Under the legislation, agencies would assume that employees are eligible to work from home, but with important limitations. Obviously, some jobs - including those done by law enforcement officers, park rangers and air traffic controllers - can't be done from home.

Union victories

The Federal Labor Relations Authority gave the two largest federal labor unions a big victory in November with a decision that allows 50,000 transportation security officers to vote on union representation. The ruling sets up a hotly contested election this year, in which airport baggage screeners will be able to vote for the American Federation of Government Employees or the National Treasury Employees Union.

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.


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