As Government Slugs It Out, Government Workers Take It on the Chin

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Correction Appended

PHILADELPHIA -- Lyn Kirshenbaum understands why President Obama and Congressional Republicans keep exchanging roundhouse swings over health care and federal spending. Politics is a brutal business.

What she does not understand is why she is the one who is black and blue.

Ms. Kirshenbaum, a 61-year-old policy specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development here, is among more than 800,000 workers furloughed from federal payrolls since a governmentwide shutdown began Tuesday. Assuming it continues, her next paycheck will include only six days of earnings instead of the usual 10.

That is not all, however. Ms. Kirshenbaum says she has lost a week of pay since intractable disputes over federal spending triggered the so-called sequester last March, forcing agencies to furlough some workers. Nor has she had a raise in three years; Mr. Obama, under fierce pressure from Republicans, suspended raises for executive-branch employees in 2010.

She and other federal workers say they feel like collateral damage in the continuing fiscal and ideological wars between the White House and its political rivals, swept up in a conflict fought by rules they cannot fathom, in places that frequently have nothing to do with the issues at stake.

Throngs of civil servants have been sent home without pay, forbidden even to check their government e-mail accounts. Still other throngs have been ordered to work through the shutdown without pay. Still others, including 400,000 civilian Pentagon workers and 1.4 million more active-duty military personnel, continue to draw a paycheck almost as if nothing were amiss at all.

At the Mine Safety and Health Administration, half of mine inspectors remain on the job. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Labor Department office that oversees job safety everywhere else, 90 percent of the staff has been furloughed, leaving a skeleton crew to respond to emergencies. At the Railroad Retirement Board office here, employees working without pay are permitted to process new unemployment claims, but cannot touch applications for retirement or survivors' benefits.

After the last major government shutdown ended, in 1995, Congress reimbursed furloughed workers for their lost pay. Although legislation to that effect has been filed in Congress, many furloughed workers say they have been told that this time, all bets are off.

"I can't afford to be without a paycheck -- ever," said Tamika Cole, 42, a claims processor who is working without pay at the regional offices here of the Social Security Administration. "I have a child that I pay tuition for, who goes to a Catholic school. I've got a mortgage to pay every month. The fact that I'm coming to work every day and don't know if I am going to get paid -- that's a lot of pressure."

Ms. Cole, the main wage earner in a family of five, is in federal parlance a GS-11 -- that is, someone who in Philadelphia makes roughly $61,000 to $79,000 a year, depending on experience. Tuition alone, she said, costs the family $725 a month.

Ms. Kirshenbaum, a single parent to two adopted Guatemalan daughters and two cats, lives in a 13-by-30-foot row house near downtown Philadelphia.

Now, she said, her take-home pay has been eaten away by furloughs, inflation and rising health care costs to the point that her home-equity line and her credit cards are all but maxed out.

Such tales would seem to belie one popular notion, that of a bloated, overpaid and underworked federal bureaucracy badly in need of a round of layoffs. Academics and political research groups debate the accuracy of that stereotype.

Most government jobs do include generous benefits, and the rates at which workers leave, voluntarily or not, have traditionally been below those in the private sector.

But the executive-branch civilian work force had been more or less stable for more than 15 years, and generally smaller than in the decade before that. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management concluded that the voluntary turnover rate for federal jobs reached 17 percent in 2011, higher than in many other industries.

And while pay for senior civil servants can be generous, other salaries can be equally miserly. Wages can vary depending on the location, but in Philadelphia, jobs at salary level GS-2  -- a post that typically goes to someone with a high school diploma and no experience -- pay as little as $24,379 annually.

On Tuesday, the first day of furloughs, a cross-section of the 186 National Park Service employees who were sent home here staged a picket outside shuttered Independence Hall, a mélange of tour guides, rangers and workers who maintain the dozens of historic buildings in the area. Dennis Fitzpatrick, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents the workers, said their average salary probably did not top $40,000.

The president of a second local representing Social Security Administration employees, Beverly Wilmer, estimated that an average furloughed employee there earned $45,000 to $50,000, slightly more than the average personal income for a full-time Philadelphia worker over age 25.

"We're the working guys in this government," said Mr. Fitzpatrick, who is an air-conditioning mechanic. "These guys, we aren't fat cats." He maintained that he and others could do the same work for more pay in the private sector -- "there's no parity," he said -- but that "we're here because we love our jobs."

Mr. Fitzpatrick was not the only furloughed worker who said that. More often than not, however, the declaration seemed that of a lover spurned by a public and self-serving politicians they believe are besotted with antigovernment language.

"We process disability claims," said Ms. Wilmer, of the Social Security workers' local. "We process retirement claims for ordinary people. We're not the enemy. These people are coming to work for free because they have a job to do. They could have stayed home, but they didn't."

Judith Axler, 54, who works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, described a depressing brew of inadequate public-housing funds, complaints about government programs and overstretched paychecks and concluded, "We've become the punching bag for the federal government."

Ms. Kirshenbaum said it was depressing enough to have her work with the homeless and other public-assistance programs derided without losing a paycheck as well.

"It's part of the whole idea that we're not essential -- that the world can function fine without government," she said. She added: "It's a kick in the face."

Correction: October 2, 2013, Wednesday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier picture caption with this article misstated the day of a protest in front of a closed Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was Tuesday, not Wednesday.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here