Union leaders to lawmakers: pay freezes, furloughs hit federal workers’ morale

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WASHINGTON - A three-year pay freeze, unpaid furloughs, sequestration, and congressionally ordered arbitrary increases in federal workers' pension payments - with no increased payouts planned in the future - hit federal workers' morale, top union leaders say.

And that's a problem not just for the workers and their unions, but for the country, since workers with low morale are more likely to quit, leaving an increasingly short-staffed federal government to carry out essential functions citizens want, add American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox and Treasury Employees President Colleen Kelley.

Cox and Kelley carried that gloomy outlook to a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing on May 7 on the future of the federal workforce and worker satisfaction.

The federal government employs 2.12 million workers, not counting the 589,000 in the U.S. Postal Service - who have their own separate issues with a postmaster general who wants to fire 100,000 of them and let another 100,000 go by attrition. AFGE and NTEU represent the largest numbers of those non-postal federal workers. Four unions represent postal workers.

Despite the reverses and cuts and being trashed for political advantage by both parties, workers keep coming to their jobs - everything from inspecting meat to treating wounded warriors to making sure people get their Social Security payments - Cox testified.

"Federal employees are a devoted and resilient bunch," Cox, a longtime Veterans Administration nurse before becoming his union's president, said. "They despise what politicians have done to them...But they love their country, they love their jobs and they're devoted to the missions of their agencies."

The practical impact of the cuts is another story, he said. "Right now, the Montana VA Hospital in Fort Harrison is hiring a dental assistant for $32,000 a year," Cox told subcommittee chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. Thanks to the increased pension pay-ins Congress now requires from new hires, "he'll pay $1,100 more than the same worker did three years before. How he'll get ahead is beyond me."

But that's not the end of it, the two union leaders said.

Cox told senators that when Congress, thanks to sequestration - a fancy name for GOP-imposed budget cuts - ordered agencies to cut their budgets, workers were furloughed without pay. Then again, thanks to an impasse over all federal spending, the government shut down for 21 days last year. Though Cox did not say so, GOP senators caused that, too.

"Between the pay freeze, the temporary layoffs and the shutdown, my phone was ringing off the hook with members threatened with foreclosure, missing car payments, couldn't pay for child care, and on and on," he added.

"Their pay is now 35 percent below that of comparable positions in the private sector. How could morale be anything other than low?" Cox asked.

"Sequestration has made it much more difficult for the federal workforce to do its job and complete its missions," Kelley added. "If you want an efficient and effective government, don't starve it to death."

Kelley told lawmakers that when she travels the country, her members tell her they're having to do more and more work with fewer and fewer people. Just the Internal Revenue Service alone, she said, is down by 10,000 workers in four years, even as lawmakers load more responsibilities onto its front-line workers, including duties involved with the Affordable Care Act.

"But the IRS is not an exception. Loss of personnel not only affects morale but effectiveness of agencies," and the workers care about that, too, union and non-partisan surveys show.

The money drain will continue, Kelley warned. "New workers must contribute 15.05 percent of their salaries for the Federal Employees Retirement System, Medicare, Social Security" and other required paycheck withholding, she said.

President Barack Obama proposed a one percent pay hike for the feds this year. Both unions say that's not enough, with Kelley advocating legislation introduced to increase pay by 3.3 percent. "That will be a small catch up for those who have to do a lot more with a lot less," she commented.

The union leaders' description of their members' morale was in sharp contrast to testimony from federal personnel managers. Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta painted a generally positive picture. One exception: The Defense Department. "The department's civilian employee morale has been negatively affected by many factors," admitted Paige Hinkle-Bowles, DOD's #2 civilian personnel official.

Bowles also warned that DOD, like the rest of the government, faces a retirement crunch, with 35 percent of its 900,000 civilian workers eligible to leave in the next five years - a point Cox seconded when speaking about his old shop, the VA. Archuleta and Bowles did not stay around to hear Cox and Kelley.

The Democratic senators on the panel were generally sympathetic to the union leaders' comments, and raised other personnel problems within the federal workforce - such as if a former federal worker goes to the private sector and contributes into Social Security, his or her later Social Security checks are docked. That happens to teachers in his state, too, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said. The one GOP senator at the hearing, Robert Portman of Ohio, a former federal budget official, did not stay around for the union leaders' testimony.

Photo: AP

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