Working for the government may sound like a sweet gig — regular hours, generous benefits, job security — but it turns out that it’s not how things look from inside the bureaucratic bubble.
With Congress and the White House seeking more revenue and spending cuts to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff,” the message from federal workers and their powerful labor unions has been consistent: We already gave at the office and we aren’t giving any more.
Noting that government workers have labored under a two-year spending freeze that will last at least until March, J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the nation’s largest federal employees union, has demanded that lawmakers take federal wages and benefits off the table during negotiations on the fiscal cliff, contending that workplace conditions and stagnant pay scales “have become too much to bear.”
But in an economy of stalling wages, declining benefit packages and a private-sector jobless rate that topped out at 10 percent during the Great Recession, the attractiveness of a federal job — and the benefits and security that go with it — has become a subject of sharp dispute, spilling over into street protests and ballot-box battles in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Given the hardships the private sector has encountered in recent years, the lot of federal workers looks relatively benign, said Rick Manning, spokesman for Americans for Limited Government.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the federal workforce has been pretty insulated from the economic impact of the last four years,” said Mr. Manning. “While they had pay freezes, the concept of losing their jobs is foreign to them.”
The most extensive survey of the federal workforce, published by the Office of Personnel Management this year, found a clear decline in satisfaction levels among federal workers with their positions, their organizations and their paychecks.
In the midst of a two-year pay freeze that has lightened federal pay packets by some $60 billion, satisfaction with salaries took the biggest hit in the survey, with 59 percent saying they were happy with their salaries, a drop of 4 percentage points from 2011 and the lowest level since 2004.
“After experiencing an upward trend over the last few survey administrations, some items have dropped to pre-2010 levels,” according to the 2012 Federal Employees Viewpoints Survey, which polled more than 687,000 workers. “These results suggest that the continued tight budgets, salary freezes and general public opinion of federal service are beginning to take a toll on even the most committed employees.”
The survey found that 68 percent of federal employees can say they are “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their jobs — down from the 71.5 percent who gave positive responses in 2010 and the 70.7 percent in 2011.
But not everyone buys into the idea that government workers have it rough, particularly compared with the plight of the private workforce in the past four years.
Staying on the job
If federal work had become untenable, the skeptics say, government employees likely would be resigning in droves to seek better opportunities elsewhere. That’s not happening, said Andrew Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“The federal quit rate — a decent measure of employee satisfaction — remains at less than one-fifth the level of private-sector professional employees,” said Mr. Biggs, who has conducted extensive research based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A possible drag on federal worker morale is a recent shift in popular opinion showing declining public confidence in the ability and honesty of government workers.