Monday, July 8, 2013


Today is the first day of the first week of furloughs for Defense Department employees. These federal employees will have to accept a 20% pay cut for the rest of this fiscal year (until October). This post is a quick personal sense of the morale of our federal workforce derived from what I’ve heard from those DoD employees I know: they are a little discouraged, but fairly resigned to it so far. I’ve heard some minor grumbling, some gallows humor, people are sighing and shaking their heads about the butt-headed head-butting dysfunction of Congress. But I’ve heard very little that I would call deeply felt grievance. Everyone understands that the wounds of the recession are not yet healed, and people everywhere are hurting.

But under all the mild grumpiness is recognition of a trend, and perhaps of a message from the country. The people I talk to here have started to internalize the idea that great parts of the country they work for doesn’t appreciate their efforts. They all know that the sequester doesn’t stop at the end of this fiscal year, and with this year’s furloughs coming on top of three years of pay freezes they are running low on patience. If furloughs continue next year, or if they are replaced with widespread reductions in force, I think that those who are eligible to retire will strongly consider it, and those who are presented with an opportunity to find employment outside the federal government will find little reason to stay where they are.

That’s particularly true of those employees the country should most want to keep, those with professional degrees or advanced degrees. Even the CBO study that is widely cited by the most vocal critics of federal workers shows that for those with a professional degrees and doctorates direct pay for those who work for the federal government is far below their counterparts in the private sector, and the benefits the study cites for federal workers don’t come close to making up the difference. Here’s the CBO study’s front-page graph:

The blue stacks are federal workers, the tan/mocha stacks are private sector workers. The lighter sections at the top of the bars are CBO’s estimates of the present value of future benefits (such as retirement benefits or continued enrollment in health insurance plans). In other words, the lighter sections are a good deal more speculative than the darker sections. In the CBO’s words, “measuring benefits was … uncertain.”

There’s a lot I don’t like about the study, but this graph shows pretty much what I’ve heard for decades: at the lower levels, employment with the federal government has better pay and benefits than the private sector, but above that the pay is higher in the private sector, and benefits are uncertain. And for those workers we most want, those that are hardest to get and keep, those shown in the last pair of columns in this graph, working for the private sector is far more lucrative even when all benefits are included.

So with pay freezes, furloughs, and a sense of national disdain for their efforts, why should those people---the people we most want and most need to make the government function---why should these people continue to work for the federal government if they are presented with an alternative? I think most of them will wearily endure this furlough episode. Most of them. But next year, if this happens again, it may be one furlough, one pay freeze, one RIF or retirement push too many for a lot of them.