Lyn Meridew Ehrmann, an affable civil servant was once cornered in a federal stairwell by a knife-wielding government worker who saw her as a threat to his job. She mentions the incident only in passing to illustrate the peculiar nature of her work.
She is member of the bureaucratic species known as job classifier - by many accounts the most despised and misunderstood of all by other government workers.
The government's 2,500 classifiers are currently pivotal in President Carter's attempt to reorganize the federal bureaucracy and its 1.8 million employes.
Job classifiers' study other jobs. They are the "police" from personnel, who show up at desks, laboratories and loading docks looking over shoulders, "looking into people's in-boxes," as Ehrmann put it. "Actually, it's a wonderful tour thorugh the world of work."
Armed with the gospel of government standards for jobs in over 700 major occupational categories, based on the elusive goal outlined by law as "equal pay for work of equal value," the classifiers are supposed to study people's work products (documents, etc.), talk to them and their bosses about their responsibilities and take whatever other steps are necessary to make a judgement about where each job properly fits in the pay scale.
They review existing positions or asess proposed new ones as agencies reorganize and programs and budgets change.
"We are like entomoligists who classify butterflies and months," said Ehrmann, who heads a staff of classifiers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. ideally, "it is the manager or supervisor of an office who actually determines the configuration of his employes' jobs. Then the classifier comes along and says, yep, that's a butterfly, or that's a moth."
Blaming a classifier for a demotion, she said, "is like blaming the cashier when the price of pie in the cafeteria goes up."
But the classifiers, being the front the troops, catch the flack, according to classfiers at various agencies. "What we do often pleases neither the boss, nor the other employes, and we may even be pitted against the rest of the personnel office," says Fred Richer, a classification specialist at the US Information Agency and president of the Classification and Compensation Society (CCS).
The classifiers often contend with pressure from managers who want to build empires or who for various reasons see the classifiers as thorns in the hide of progress. Managers are always "leaning on" classifiers for the highest grades they can get for their staff positions, classifiers say, so they can be more competitive in hiring, get better talent, and so on.
Many poorly trained and over-worked classifiers lack the confidence or skill to resist these pressures, and get little or no support from their own top management, they said.
"Classifiers in all agencies are often asked to prostitute themselves," said Charles Romeo, who has 26 years'experience as a classifiers at the General Services Administration.(He emphasized that he was speaking of general conditions and not his own agency.)
The problems is serious, he said because "when a position classification specialist authenticates (signs) a position description, that becomes a paying document for the dispersement of public funds."
Classifiers should be skilled at salesmanship as well as investigating and analyzing, according to Bob McNichol, a classifier for 12 years now in a Navy personnel position involving high-level classification.
"An attorney can write a nice brief, but that won't mean much if he doesn't sell it in the court room. Classifiers often find the salesmanship work frustrating, but they have to make their conclusions credible."
The aspect of the classifiers' work which most concerns federal employes these days is the government-wide program of demotions, or "downgrading," to correct what goverment officials call a significent problem of overgrading, which built up over a decade or more.
Though the Carter administration and some members of Congress are supporting measures to protect employes, at least temporarily, from the effects of such demotions, the downgrading effort has nevertheless raised the specter of pay cuts for thousand of workers.
Over 10 percent of the 1.3 million white collar position under the system are probably overgraded (and thus overpaid), according to Civil Service Commission official John D. R. Cole. "In dollar terms, that's about $400 million a year in excess pay and benefits, or $40 billion over a 10 year period," he said.
Cole, a controversial figure, heads the buruau in charge of monitoring and enforcing the classification system. He is a self-described "hardliner and conservative" on classification issues, which he terms "one of the two biggest money issues in personnel these days." (The other involves the ratio of supervisors to workers, which he also believes is too high.)
The overgrading reached its current proportions because of a complex combination of forces dating back to the early '60s, according to officials and government studies. Mushrooming government programs - the space race and social welfare initiatives, for example - created a pressure to bring in new employes rapidly. At that time, the level of federal pay was below that of the private sector.
One result was that federal managers raised the level of pay they could offer their employes by using the classification process to falsely elevate their grade levels - a process that resulted in what officials refer to as grade creep.
Also during this period, the government was neglecting its "factory," located in the Civil Service Commission, that produces the standards the classifiers use to classify the jobs.
While all this was happening, says Cole, classification specialist "had a desire to prove to managers that the system was flexible and so we flexed the hell out of it."
Says classifier Ritcher, "It was like the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit; if all the traffic is doing 65, what is the traffic cop supposed to do?"
By 1970, the federal government had caught up with - and in some cases passed - the private sector in its pay levels. Complaints about the overgrading began to mount.
The Government Accounting Office in 1975 issued a report calling for better controls in the classification process. In 1976, President Ford wrote a memo to his agencies urging attention to the problem. "It's embarrassing, the president having to write about position classification," said Paul Katz, head of the Civil Service Commission bureau which produces job standards, the primary tool of the classifier.
With a recently beefed-up staff and budget, Katz's bureau is playing catch-up ball. They have come up with a new design for their standards which all parties hope will be more useful to classifiers, and more precise. Even the new, streamlined model seems unwieldy. The written standard for the relatively simple job of mail clerk is a 54-page booklet with five different examples of what the job might be within just one of several grade level, GS3.
Among the most difficult jobs to define and write standards for, these days, are those in emerging technical-Professional fields, such as ecology, Katz said.
The number one challenge, currently, is the familar job of administrative officer. "Whoever develops the standard for that one will get an award," Katz said. "Those people might handle office space, budget, heat, light, car pool, personnel, a whole host of administrative functions. So far, we haven't come up with a standard that everybody can agree on."
For standards writers and classifiers alike, part of the difficulty lies in the changing nature of work itself, according to Richter. "Work is no longer what a mule can do in an hour. It's more and more based on brain power; in other words, hard to measure . . . How do you audit somebody who just sits and thinks all day."
With the preassures causing some classifiers to bail out into other jobs and driving others to drink, beleaguered classifiers banded together in 1969 to form their own society, to "come in from the cold," as they put it, and commisserate about their common problems and goals. The CCS has 1,200 members.
Historically, according to Richter, the typical classifier has evolved through three types: the "by-the-book old liners, grouchy high priests who could tell the managers what to do, who looked on the written standards the way a Baptist looks upon his Bible;" then, "my group, the kids of the '50s, the Grease generation, who were more flexibile but could recall the old times, too;" and finally, the latest, who "want to be more flexible, not doctrinaire, who look at classification as a management aid and want to work with managers to find a sensible approach."
Despite today's oversupply of labor, both standard writers and job classifiers still have a hard time recruiting people into their specialized and unpopular ranks. Classifiers see some hope in government moves to increase training and recruiting efforts. The Society itself is pushing for more co-operation between managers and classifiers and for better advancement opportunities and more professional standards for classifiers.
Still, most of them are braced for more heat. As HUD's Ehramann put it, "We used to have a controlled bureaucracy, where people just accepted things because they came from legistimate sources of authority. Now, with the break-up of trust in authority, or whatever, people have to be told why.We just have to explain to them what's going on."