Take a heap of anxiety, add a chunk of fear, throw in big pile of uncertainty.
Mix and boil for a federal employee moral-busting stew, with a bad aftertaste.
The main ingredient — the budget plan President Trump presents this week — is sure to be the most distasteful.
His expected proposal to cut $54 billion from the domestic discretionary budget worries feds about their agencies’ missions, their health-care benefits, retirement plans and even their jobs.
That was clear from conversations with federal employees and retirees attending the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) and the Federal Managers Association conferences this week, which co-located their meetings at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center.
“Obviously, that’s distressful,” said NARFE President Richard G. Thissen of the impact the current political climate has on his members, about 23,500 of whom are current employees. “There’s a great deal of angst among the federal employee workforce … it’s kind of like what shoe is going to drop on us next. … They are nervous. … Even the retirees understand this is really an attack.”
The feeling of being attacked goes beyond dollars and cents. It includes Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. That’s clearly a morale-busting slogan for proud, mission-driven employees who reject the notion that they are swamp-dwellers.
If Trump calls for a 1.9 percent pay increase to take effect in January 2018, as an Office of Management and Budget document suggested, that might slow the morale slide. Some anxieties, however, can’t be helped with more money. That same OMB guidance to the Commerce Department, reported by The Washington Post earlier this month, said the agency should “prepare plans and calculate estimates on how it will reduce personnel” consistent with an 18 percent budget cut.
Language like this gives feds good reason to fear layoffs, in addition to the current hiring freeze.
“Everybody at this conference has at least one employee who lives paycheck-to-paycheck,” said Patricia Niehaus, a civilian Air Force manager and past president of the managers’ association. An increase in health-insurance premiums, she added, could result in the inability of some families to pay for after-school programs.
Thissen said current and retired workers also are disturbed that efforts to cut workplace due-process protections for those facing disciplinary actions are part of “changing the fabric of the federal workforce” and fuel talk about a return to the spoils system.
The top concern among his members is the possible degrading of the highly regarded Federal Employees Health Benefits program. A congressional plan would make it a voucher system that would grow with inflation. That sounds reasonable — until you realize feds would pay more out of pocket because “premiums grow significantly faster than inflation,” according to a Congressional Budget Office examination of the proposal.
Bottom line: A voucher would save Uncle Sam money while taking it from his employees.
Another high concern — reducing agency payments to federal retirement benefits while making feds contribute more. With no increase in benefits, this long-standing Republican scheme would amount to a pay cut. Federal employees fear that they will see it again. Yet another proposal to save retirement dollars at the expense of workers would base pensions on the average of the highest-paid five consecutive years of an employee’s federal career instead of the “high three,” effectively reducing retirement income. One more worry focuses on killing the defined-benefit federal pension for new employees and replacing it with a 401K-like defined contribution plan. That, too, would save Sam money while costing feds more.
Joy Lazaroff, a retired Food and Drug Administration employee, said eroding retirement benefits is a very real fear. “I worked for the government for 36 years, and I think I should get what they promised me when I signed on,” she said. “I gave them loyal service.”
That service comes with a strong sense of mission. This is a real and tangible factor for feds that inevitably comes through in discussions with them. Trump’s hiring freeze makes the mission harder.
“If we can’t hire people, then we can’t fix ships,” said Valerie Scott, a manager at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. “It hurts morale, because the workers want to do a good job. They want to be successful at the job. They want to fix ships. … They want the country defended.”
When asked her top concern about possible budget cuts, Scott is clear and direct: “My concern is the protection of my country.”