Honest people sometimes have a tough time saving the government money. Whistleblowers know it. Budget committee staffers know it. And now Janet Brow of Rockville knows it. She tried to save Uncle Sam one thin dime_and Sam wouldn't let her.
Janet works at the National Institutes of Health. A few weeks ago, her father was suddenly hospitalized in Florida. She didn't know where, or why, and she couldn't reach her mother. "I was plenty worried," Janet says. Who could blame her?
But here's the rub: Janet happens to work several hundred feet from the nearest pay phone. If she left her desk to use it, she would cheat the taxpayers out of her services for those few minutes. Besides, she'd have to round up a fellow worker to "cover" for her, thus compounding the felony.
So, she thought, why not call the NIH operator, tell her the truth and ask that she be allowed to use the phone on her desk -- with the bill to be sent to her at home later? After all, this was a genuine emergency, not somebody calling an old flame, or a long-lost cousin.
The resulting tug-of-war was unpleasant. The operator adamantly refused to authorize a personal long-distance call on a government line. Janet explained over and over. The operator refused over and over. Finally, Janet gave up.
Janet could easily have chosen the dishonest route. She could have placed the call herself, at her desk, at government expense, at any time. She could also have said "to heck with it" and marched down the hall to the pay phone, leaving her desk unattended. But she tried to play it straight, and the system said no.
Now, a Bell System charge card would have been just the ticket here. Janet could have made the call from her desk and charged it to her home phone, and there would have been no surges in anybody's blood pressure.
But Janet raises an important point just the same. Government phone operators should take workers at their word when they ask to make an emergency personal long-distance call. Here's why:
First of all, permitting emergency personal calls is more cheater-proof than it might appear. Just log all the calls at a central place. If a bunch are made from the same phone, it's easily discovered. If a bunch are made to the same phone over a considerable length of time, ditto.
Second, there is no difference between a local call and a long-distance call in terms of work time lost. People have families, and families have troubles. By permitting local personal calls but not long-distance ones, the government is essentially saying that family trouble in Hyattsville is all right, but the same trouble in Indianapolis isn't. Absurd.
Third, a long-distance call costs the government the same as a local call -- 10 cents. Like all major employers, the government buys WATS lines. These provide long-distance calls at local-call rates. It's not like the old days, when three minutes to the next county cost $8.
The real shame in all this is that the government is refusing to trust the very employes (like Janet Brow) who are trying hardest to be honest. As Janet points out, "I suspect that some of those people who abuse government funds by making long-distance calls at government expense may have started out by trying to do the right thing."
Start mending your ways by bending your ways, Sam. It will cost you nothing, and it'll win you thousands of less-anxious employes.
Here's another Idea Whose Time Has Come, that continuing series of brainstorms the world can't do without, as contributed by Bob Levey's Washingtonians. Today's is the work of Charlie Young.
"I think that all large trucks should be required to have indestructible black boxes similar to those in aircraft," Charlie proposes. "They should record date/time/speed and such things as when the brakes were applied and steering wheel turned, to assist police in determining fault in a wreck . . . .If nothing else, this might force truck drivers to be more conservative." Nice one! If you have another that that you'd like to see published, please mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.
To all waiters and waitresses who wonder why tips are sometimes large, and sometimes not:
A restaurant industry publication studied tipping patterns as correlated with the weather. It found that tips average 8 percent on cloudy or rainy days, but 17 percent when the sun is out.
Wince warning: The following gag may not be hazardous to your health, but it will do permanent damage to your groan gauge.
What's a honeymoon salad? Dianne Pickar says it's lettuce alone, without dressing.