Complaining but not quitting: Federal workers choose security despite tepid job satisfaction

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.

A Pew Research Center poll in August of 3,000 Americans found that 54 percent of respondents think the federal government is “mostly corrupt,” compared with 31 percent who found federal workers “mostly honest.” An analysis by the Partnership for Public Service found that federal workers do not have particularly high opinions of their managers, giving their bosses at 27 large government agencies and departments a collective score of 54.9 on a scale of 1 to 100 for “effective leadership.”

“Federal employees are struggling with feeling empowered in their work and roughly half do not hold favorable views of their agency’s leaders,” the survey authors concluded.

Grim as the situation may appear for federal workers, it’s not exactly a picnic for their private-sector counterparts. A study conducted by Mr. Biggs and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation shows that salaries and benefits have failed to keep pace with the compensation levels offered by the federal government.

When comparing the federal and private sector, “the private sector comes out ahead in almost every category of job satisfaction. Yet quit rates are far lower in the federal government,” Mr. Biggs said. “Something must explain these results, and a generous compensation package is likely to be part of it.”

Cutting back

The package isn’t as generous as it used to be. Congress voted in 2012 to hike the required pension contribution for newly hired federal employees from 0.8 percent to 3.1 percent of salary, although current employees were exempted from the increase.

In a letter and ad campaign, the American Federation of Government Employees “seeks to remind lawmakers that federal and postal employees are the only group of Americans who have personally sacrificed to help reduce the nation’s deficit.”

“You’ve got to look elsewhere for your cuts if you have to make them,” Jackie Simon, public policy director for the union, told the Huffington Post last month.

While federal employees have faced a pay freeze since mid-2010, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been earning more money. The freeze affects cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), not merit- or tenure-based pay increases under the so-called “step increases” in a General Schedule employee’s rate of basic pay, Mr. Richwine said.

“Anyone who gets a pay freeze is not going to be happy about it, but pay freezes are just in COLAs. You’re still going to get your step raises,” he said. “So some people have seen pay increases. You’d have to freeze that pay for quite a long time to have it comparable to the private sector.”

Public vs. private sectors

Making an apples-to-apples comparison of the lot of public- and private-sector workers turns out to be a challenging analytical task.

The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog and research arm, surveyed a range of studies — including one by Mr. Richwine and Mr. Biggs — analyzing federal and private pay and benefit scales, and found they were all over the map on whether government workers made out better than their private-sector peers.

The comparisons also don’t hold across all agencies and all professions. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. could make far more than his $191,300 annual salary if he returns to private practice, but the private market for, say, a State Department historian or a Colorado forest ranger is far more limited. Several studies found that the pay-and-benefits boost for a federal worker with just a high school diploma was far larger than the premium a government lawyer or accountant might receive.

Reviewing the research, GAO analysts concluded: “The differences among the selected studies are such that comparing their results to help inform pay decisions is potentially problematic. Given the different approaches of the selected studies, their findings should not be taken in isolation as the answer to how federal pay and total compensation compares with other sectors.”

Job satisfaction can vary dramatically within the federal bureaucracy.

An Office of Personnel Management survey this year found sharp differences in job satisfaction ratings for federal workers on an index combining views on their job, pay and whether they would recommend their department or agency as a good place to work.

Some agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of State, scored substantially above the government average, while other agencies, including the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the National Archives and Records Administration were at the bottom of the list.

In demand

For all the mixed signals, Mr. Richwine noted that booksellers such as Amazon.com list dozens of titles about how to get hired by the federal government. There is even a “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Government Jobs.” His local community college, he said, offers a course on negotiating the federal hiring process.

“It’s amazing that people will pay to find a job where you have pay freezes,” Mr. Richwine said. “All these data points converging indicate that federal jobs are highly desirable.”

The call for improving the federal workplace environment was made after a November jobs report showed national unemployment at 7.7 percent, a slight decline from October’s 7.9 percent, although economists said the dip was largely the result of a drop in labor participation, with 542,000 people giving up looking for work during that time.

The 2012 OPM study surveyed 687,000 federal workers, more than twice as many as any of its previous reports. Despite the dip in satisfaction, the survey also shows that two-thirds of workers remain “hardworking, motivated and mission-focused even amidst the many challenges facing government today.”

“As far as federal workers being dissatisfied, even our own data shows that’s not accurate. You still have over 50 percent satisfied with the job,” Mr. Richwine said. “I wouldn’t call that a crisis.”

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