Marcelo del Canto, George Schlaffer and Rudy D’Alessandro are all looking down the barrel of the government shutdown, and they don’t like what they see.
The three veteran Washington area federal employees were among the hundreds of thousands of workers furloughed on Tuesday after Congress and the White House missed the deadline for extending government spending authority in a dog fight over the Affordable Care Act.
For the past eight years, del Canto has worked as a budget analyst for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “I’m a budget analyst and unfortunately in my budget I didn’t plan for a furlough,” he said. “My wife has also been furloughed, so this has hit us very hard.”
Schlaffer has worked as an Internal Revenue Service agent in Baltimore for 40 years. “We’re real folks, we’re not wealthy,” Schlaffer says of his family. “I have two daughters in college. I’m helping both of them pay their tuition. But guess what? It’s very difficult.”
D’Alessandro is a 21-year veteran of the federal government who works for the National Park Service. “My wife is currently unemployed, so paying our mortgage is definitely something we’re worried about,” he said.
There was a time when government service was a much coveted career because of the relatively good pay, benefits and job security. But in recent years, government workers have been buffeted by criticism and investigations, pay freezes, unpaid furloughs mandated by the sequester and now the first government shutdown in 17 years.
In some ways, government workers have become faceless props in ongoing budget warfare and political posturing by Republicans and Democrats alike.
“All of them are being used as pawns by some in Congress to score political points,” Colleen M. Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said on Tuesday at a labor rally just outside the Capitol. “These federal employees are real people. They have mortgages and rent to pay. They have tuition to pay. They’re caring for their elderly parents as well as their children.”
President Obama took office in 2009 promising to make it “cool ” to be a government worker again, as it was during the administration of President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. But in recent years, federal workers and their union leaders say it is anything but cool.
The 2.7 million civilian federal workforce has remained flat for much of Obama’s tenure and even dropped by 71,000 jobs in the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Back in February, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill freezing worker’s pay for the third year in a row. The bill overturned an executive order Obama signed that authorized a one percent pay raise for federal workers.
Even with the salary freeze, government workers are paid well compared with their counterparts in the private sector, according to the Washington Post. The average salary for a full-time, permanent position now stands at nearly $78,500 a year, according to the Office of Personnel Management, an increase of about $1,800 in the last two years. The median salary — the point at which half are above and half are below — is now $74,714, up from $69,550 in 2010.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, whose Baltimore district is home to tens of thousands of federal workers, criticized Republicans for targeting government employees, and said Congress instead should be working to avoid the automatic cuts. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says that “at almost every hearing, we hear [Republican] attack after attack after attack on federal employees.”
Republicans who backed the pay-freeze bill said that in a time when Americans were facing a tough economy, government workers should not be getting pay raises. "Good-paying full-time jobs should not be limited to those fortunate enough to work for the federal government," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee and the wealthiest member of Congress.
“At a time when hardworking American taxpayers are struggling to find work and keep their heads above water,” federal workers were enjoying “sufficient and generous pay and job security.”
Yesterday’s rally outside the Capitol drew about 50 federal government employees and their union leaders, as well as a handful of Democratic lawmakers from the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland and Virginia. “We want to work!” said one placard held aloft up by a member of the American Federation of Government Employees. Another sign, showing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in a baby bonnet, declared: “Boehner Stop Throwing Tantrums and Start Doing Your Job!”
House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), a champion of federal workers, described the first day of the government shutdown as “an afternoon filled with angst, anxiety, fear, doubt, lack of confidence and a concern all over America over whether government can and does work.”
“It would be better if all of the folks that are with us were at work, on behalf of the American people,” Hoyer said. “They don’t want a shutdown. Neither do Democrats. The proposition that some Republicans have said that Democrats want to shut down the government is so patently absurd – so unbelievable -- that it’s almost not even worth responding to.”
“Basically we need to end this shutdown,” said Schlaffer, the IRS agent. “We’ve got plenty of important work to do for America. We need to get to work.”