Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today! Congressional committees start work on fiscal 2009 budget blueprints today, the start of a year-long process to fund federal programs and provide for the staffs at federal agencies. We'll try to keep you posted as Congress works its will. Now, let's go to your questions and comments.


Montgomery County, Md.: I was in an interview recently for a federal job. My resume shows a two-year gap in my job experience, and I was asked my reason for not working during that period. It was in fact because I left the work force to care for my infant/toddler son. However, this non-work period ended nearly 15 years ago, and I've worked steadily since. I thought the question smacked of a legal way to get around finding out about family issues, but my husband thinks I'm overreacting. Any thoughts? Thanks for your input.

Stephen Barr: It does sound a little off-point to me. As a general rule, most interviewers are interested in your past five to seven years, and what experience and education you obtained in that period. Anyone out there with an opinion on this?


Washington: Could you or any of those participating in this chat session please help me? I am desperately unhappy and unfulfilled in my current field, procurement. Could you tell me where I could obtain information on intern or training programs within the government so I could start a new career. I'm in my 40s. I tried searching USAjobs but could find nothing. Thank you so very much for your help.

Stephen Barr: I'm sorry to hear that. The Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon are trying to spruce up careers in acquisition, because agencies really need folks in this field.

First off, you probably should really narrow your job search, looking for a new position where you can build on your procurement experience, or selecting an agency or two where you would like to work and arrange for interviews there.

Okay folks, any other suggestions for this person?


Rockville, Md.: Have there been any studies on the number of women joining the government between ages 25 and 30? I'm 27 and work as a consultant for government clients. I'd be interested in working for the government, but the lack of paid maternity leave holds me back from applying. If I got a government job now, certainly I wouldn't have enough vacation or sick days built up to support me for a 6-8 week leave. I either would have had to join the government after school, or I'd have to wait until my child-bearing years were over. (This is compared to my company, which pays new mothers for 6-8 weeks of leave, and pays fathers and adoptive parents for 2 weeks of leave).

Stephen Barr: I have not seen any, but the average age of all new hires is 33. That tells you something right there -- that federal managers are interested in hiring people with at least one or two jobs on their resume and enough experience to step in without much training.

The lack of paid parental leave is a missing benefit in the government, and a hearing has been scheduled in the House this week on the topic. It is something that all young women want to see provided, but so far federal personnel officials think civil service employees have ample vacation and sick leave days to divert to caring for a newborn. Best of luck!


Midwest: Thank you for your excellent column last week about the Social Security budget issue. This needs to stay on the front burner. After 12 years of budgetary neglect the financial chickens are coming home to roost at the Social Security Administration. I read a great quote on Charles Hall's Social Security news blog. Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, quoted in Mother Jones, said: "For somewhere between a half and quarter of the cost of the war in Iraq you could have fixed all the problems associated with Social Security for the next 75 years and still have had a lot left over."

washingtonpost.com: Disability Cases Pending, Pending... (Post, Feb. 29)

Stephen Barr: And thank you for the kind words. Social Security will be a big issue for the next president, and staffing the program could be an issue. After all, a lot of Social Security employees are baby boomers, and they are about ready to retire, too.


Cleveland: With the police force in charge of protecting most federal buildings being changed, does that mean that the current rent-a-cops are going be a thing of the past, and the folks guarding us will be feds?

washingtonpost.com: Government Buildings to Get Added Protection (Post, March 5)

Stephen Barr: Nope, the Federal Protective Service will continue to rely on contract guards, but hopefully it will add enough police officers to improve oversight and hold them more accountable.


Bike Commuter in Washington: I ride my bike to work at the Department of Commerce, which is just starting a massive, multi-year renovation. Our "Joggers Locker Room" and shower facility, which is used all year round by cyclists, runners and others, is going away for at least 18 months. The bike parking area is threatened, too. Building management doesn't seem to care, and we can't get any traction in the department's upper management. As a result, we've been left high-and-dry. It's also not clear whether the space will be restored at all. For what it's worth, we -- and not the Department -- supplied the lockers through creative dumpster diving.

Considering the government's push for alternative means (i.e., non-automobile) of transportation and physical fitness, this makes no sense at all. Any suggestions on how we can get federal agencies (similar situations exist in others) to recognize and support those of us who have chosen alternative modes of transportation, and who are serious about physical fitness?

Stephen Barr: First off, I would write a letter to the Commerce secretary. He may not respond, but at least you have given it a try.

If your building management continues to blow you off, then I would call the GSA and ask if they can help you find space at the Ronald Reagan building, which is across the street. Certainly somewhere in that block a temporary bike rack could be set up.

If none of that works, give me a call. Perhaps there is a column in your plight, given that the Bush White House has been championing "green" efforts at all federal agencies.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why would you include experience dating back 15 years? I'd always thought that fed forms ask for employment or experience dating back 10 years. The woman who is complaining about being asked about it during an interview begged the question by listing it on her resume. Now that she didn't get the job, it's asked to find out about her family life? Maybe they were asking about it to see if she took two years off to work with orphans in India. Revamp your resume or form.

Stephen Barr: Interesting point. Any thoughts here, folks?


Fort Walton Beach, Fla.: Regarding health benefits for annuitants, when one reaches 65 and we have to make decisions on signing up for Medicare and parts A or B, which is better for keeping secondary insurance. I currently have BlueCross BlueShield with CHAMPVA as secondary. Should I drop BlueCross and keep CHAMPVA, or vice versa? Thank you for your info.

Stephen Barr: This is not an easy decision, and it's impossible to give advice about. You need to take into account your overall health, estimated pharmacy and other medical costs, and the insurance preferences of your favorite doctor.

I'm not well-versed on the plans you mention, but the federal employee health care program provides a number of protections, including a prescription drug benefit that is superior to Medicare's.


Beltsville, Md.: To Cleveland, the security in my government building is awful. We have to scan in and out every day, but contractors or those from other buildings without scan passes can just walk in. My problem with it is that the guards are not asking to see the badges. The other day some person I've never seen before walked in, and there wasn't a peep about showing ID. I feel really safe! I highly doubt adding more security folks will change things.

Stephen Barr: That is not encouraging. Building security should be a constant priority.


Southern Maryland: Stephen (and your chatters) -- I need to vent and you (all) are who I am venting to. We all know how congested the roads are to/from Washington and want to help the environment, cut down on traffic, encourage telework, etc. I have been a Federal employee for more than 20 years and I live 50 miles outside of Washington, and for 10 of my 20 years have been able to telecommute (i.e. work at home two days a week).

A new supervisor has entered into our workforce and has mandated that the entire staff change their work schedule (eliminated maxi-flex) and has terminated all telework. Effective immediately, we are all to work in the office Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. I know I may be considered "lucky" by others because I am able to telework, but does anyone see this "change" as backward thinking? It's 2008, and the last thing we need is an entire staff adding to the traffic/environmental issues when we can (and already do!) work effectively from home. (Our performance appraisals support this.) Any thoughts out there?

Stephen Barr: Assuming no performance and productivity issues, I would say this is a step backward. Managerial resistance to telework has been identified by the Office of Personnel Management and GSA as one of the main obstacles to expanding this practice. Any ideas out there on this?


Washington: Steve, I take issue with your last statement: "All young women want to see provided maternity benefits." Maybe you should speak for yourself. I am a 31-year-old woman and I have no intention of having children. I also resent the statement that all women want maternity benefits. Where is my commensurate benefit, given that I won't be taking months off, paid out of tax dollars? Further, the 1998 Census Bureau Population Survey demonstrated that a greater percentage of women of all ages are not having children. So we are talking about a minority of women here.

I also question who the Federal government thinks this benefit will recruit. Any population or reproductive study that I have seen has proven that child-free women and couples without kids are considerably more likely to be educated and have professional or managerial occupations (24 percent versus 16 percent of dual-employed couples with children). If this proposal moves forward, I plan to contact each and every congressman and senator involved. This is a ridiculous plan.

Stephen Barr: I plead guilty. As I whiz along on the keyboard here, I sometimes lapse into generalizations.

As you point out, there are many factors in play, including data that suggests some women put off having children until they are satisfied with their career path and opportunities. But I'll stick to my theory that paid parental leave will improve the government's ability to recruit young people. Many corporations offer this perk.

Isn't this in keeping with alternative work schedules, telecommuting and other family friendly benefits -- such as child care centers and subsidies -- provided by many agencies?


Re: Bike Rider: In addition to the DOC secretary, GSA contacts (and Stephen), e-mail your congressmen/women. Maybe they can assist. This change at DOC clearly is not in line with the government's efforts to "green up."

Stephen Barr: Good point. Thanks.


Beltsville, Md.: To Montgomery County, I agree with Silver Spring, Md. Change your resume and only list the past 10 years of continuous work. I'd also toss this one over your shoulder and not make a big deal out of it. The question may have been annoying, but the interviewer may have had absolutely no ulterior motives with asking it. By including this on your resume, some would say it became a legitimate reason to ask about the gap. Did the person actually ask about your family situation? If not, forget it and move on to the next application/interview.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for this feedback!


Job dating back 15 years: Maybe it had some experience more relevant to the job she applying for vs. her recent experience.

Stephen Barr: My thought too. Thanks.


For the person unhappy in procurement: The government has lots of education opportunities to help you change careers. Check out the GoLearn site.

Stephen Barr: Good suggestion! Thanks.


Washington: I've heard that Federal Law Enforcement Officers are being changed to the NSPS system and losing their LEAP in the process, at least in the Department of Defense. If this same pay-for-performance model moves to other U.S. government agencies, what will be the impact on retaining law enforcement officers within those agencies? For Homeland Security, with its large number, using the model would become a nightmare for those wishing to protect and serve.

Stephen Barr: Hard to believe the Pentagon would take away this allowance; it seems that would put them in the position of tracking and paying overtime. But I may be confused here.

If true, I don't think this practice will spread -- the unions at the Department of Homeland Security would go straight to the Hill and lobby against it.


Maternity leave: I'm a late-30s female fed, and likewise have no intention of having kids, but I disagree with the earlier chatter. Even though I don't plan to use it myself, I think parental leave is an important benefit. I know plenty of highly educated, successful people who are having or plan to have kids, and every one of them is an asset to her/his employer (some current feds, some not). Does that chatter similarly oppose employer-provided health benefits for dependents? Anyway, these kids that other people are spawning are going to grow up to pay for and run this government when the previous chatter and I are off enjoying our retirements (in part on the Social Security (maybe) that those kids will be paying for).

Stephen Barr: Thanks for your thoughts on this!


Baltimore: I have been a government employee for more than 30 years and the lack of paid maternity has not stopped women from having babies. For those who have not been able to build up a ton of leave, it is possible to borrow 240 hours of sick leave -- that's six weeks. Granted, the next two years of payback can be a little tough because you only will be earning annual leave during that time and will have more reasons to be absent with a child, but many agencies have credit hours and comp time, so it is possible to build up additional time off. Women have been doing this for years. Please don't let the lack of a formal paid maternity leave policy keep you from government employment if that is what you desire.

Stephen Barr: Good points, Baltimore.

Still, I hear from lots of new hires in the government who find it difficult to bank enough leave for paid time off with a newborn. It is difficult to write rules for every circumstance.


Beltsville, Md.: Steve, like Washington, there are many federal workers (both women and men) who are against giving this leave. Personally, I believe the federal benefits package including leave is highly regarded by outsiders. The problem with giving more free leave is that, in my opinion, it continues to allow for misuse of leave in general. When this discussion came up before, I wrote to my senators and congressman and told them that before implementing new programs they should demand information on leave usage in the federal agencies.

I know people who have worked for 30 plus years who have no leave, while other younger workers have saved their leave and have a leave nest egg available. Most federal agencies have leave donor/bank programs, and this is another way to get leave. So, you could have an employee use up all his/her leave, request to be put in the leave donor program and get up to a year's worth of free leave, and then on top of that give them an additional amount of parental leave. From my view, Federal employees have it good ... and adding more leave is not the answer to getting people hired. It's an image problem across the federal government...

Stephen Barr: I'm not sure I would call it an image problem. The federal government traditionally has tried to play the role of the "model employer," providing benefits that policy-makers think all employers should provide.

If you are looking for an image issue, the idea that federal employees can retire with a COLA and take their health benefits with them into retirement may prove to be the barn-burner. Companies are reducing retiree benefits drastically, and I fear that could fire up resentment.


Lusby, Md.: To Southern Maryland ... I got a new boss last year who did the same thing. For one month I logged and tracked the time it took for me to get to work during the later hours (I was working 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and how long to get home leaving at 4:30 p.m. At the end of the month I typed up a memo outlining my days for the month and requested that maxiflex be put back in place. We still have not gotten it back...

Stephen Barr: At least you tried. Best of luck!


Arlington Va.: On the telework Neanderthal supervisor ... people like Rep. Frank Wolf are pushing agencies on telework and threatening to tie it to their budgets -- i.e. if they don't do it enough it could cost them funding. Drop a line to Rep. Wolf's office and clue him in to this idiot, maybe some congressional interest will nudge him (or her).

Stephen Barr: That's one approach, for sure.


Also Washington: Not much help, but I'm in a similar situation as Washington. I've become very unhappy and frustrated with my role in procurement, where office morale keeps declining. I also have been trying to find a way to transition into another path -- to build on my experience, but out of the standard 1102 position -- without much luck. A real shame, as we've heard for years about how agencies are trying to recruit for the field, but without many results.

Stephen Barr: This is most unfortunate; the government needs top-notch procurement operations, and agencies need to show more appreciation for these jobs.


Social Security Administration headquarters: I am a long-time employee who is very discouraged lately. There seems to be genuine concern about the approaching baby boomer retirements, the brain drain and the loss of institutional knowledge -- but the answer seems to be that the agency is promoting younger employees to keep them employed. The result is that the older employees who have the institutional knowledge are being overlooked at promotion time.

Upper management knows that the Civil Service Retirement System employees won't leave before retirement because we are close enough to being able to retire. I personally have been on nine qualifying lists in the past 18 months, and all of the selections have gone to people under 35. Those of us in our early 50s who have a lot to give and would be willing to work an additional 10 or more years now are planning to retire as soon as we become eligible.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for sharing this example. This looks like an area where senior management needs to ensure that personnel changes are in the best interests of the agency, short- and long-term.


Washington: Steve, it is the first week in March, and yesterday was your second or third column on next years federal pay raise -- that is all they think about; the average pay for these folks is more than $95,000. They all get raises every year that for most cases are not tied to performance, and their benefits have no equal in the private sector. We taxpayers can't feel sorry for them. Equal pay between the feds and the military is a recent development and only applies if the military is scheduled to get a larger pay raise. Too bad the feds have to cry all the way to the bank.

washingtonpost.com: Federal Pay Caught Up in Fiscal 2009 Budget Debates (Post, March 4)

Stephen Barr: Thanks for being a loyal reader!

It's difficult to compare the federal and private sectors -- companies do some things better than the feds, and the feds do some thing better than corporations. The key for the government is to adopt best practices from the private sector that make sense in the government.

With any luck, we will learn if performance-based pay is one of those things that makes sense in government. The Defense Department has launched a big project in this area. As for equal pay, that tradition goes back about 20 years, according to Capitol Hill aides. Average pay in Washington is about $90,000; out in the field, where most federal employees work, the average is much, much lower.

Frankly, with the run-up in demand for technology, engineering and scientific skills, I fully expect to see the government pay even more in the future to get the talent it needs.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thanks for all the questions and comments. I'm away next week, so we will resume this discussion on March 19. Please join us then!


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