Federal Workers' Big Lament: Who Needs This Grief?

JESS MOSES grew up believing that a government job was a good job. So four years ago, he quit his post at a California railroad to become a guard in the federal prison system.

Even though his new occupation was more dangerous, less lucrative, and required moving his family to New Jersey, Mr. Moses never looked back. Until now.

As an "essential" employee, Moses had to work during both government shutdowns - without pay. "I took this job because I thought it was secure," he laments. "Now I'm not so sure I made the right decision."

After two furloughs, thousands of layoffs, countless cracks about "bureaucrats," and several acts of antigovernment violence, federal jobs have lost much of their luster. Most government workers were scheduled to be back at work today, as a truce in this season's lengthy White House-Congress budget clash ended Federal Shutdown, Chapter 2.

But the experience of being held hostage to wrangling over balanced budgets has lastingly deepened the bureaucracy's feelings of discontent.

Some say this snarly climate will chase bright people away from public service. Others argue that federal workers are simply getting a taste of the kind of volatility now common in the private sector. Either way, the cradling image that once lured Moses to the federal payroll is fast becoming a relic.

"When I came to work for the government, I thought I was doing a service," says Doris Crass, a 23-year veteran of the Social Security Administration in Baltimore. "Now the public hates me. I'm embarrassed to tell people where I work."

As of this writing, the front lines of Washington's budget battle had moved away from the desks of the rank-and-file and into the inner rooms of the White House and Congress. Firebrand House Republicans allowed the government to reopen in full force after President Clinton submitted a new balanced-budget plan late Saturday night - although the two sides still seemed far apart on the substantive questions that led to the whole shutdown squabble in the first place.

The GOP complained Mr. Clinton's new plan would spend too much over the next seven years and contains hidden tax increases. Democrats retorted that their path out of red ink was gentler on key social programs such as Medicaid than GOP outlines.

Federal workers watched the sniping from the sidelines - knowing that any balanced-budget effort will likely cost thousands of their jobs. Many in the bureaucracy worry that the budget mess of 1995-96 may have deepened the public's perception of them as expendable.

According to Ms. Crass, such stereotypes are especially biting at a time when government is placing more demands on its workers.

In her job as a teleservice representative, she says, strict new "customer service" guidelines mandate that she must field a new call every five minutes.

Performance review

Indeed, Crass and her fellow federal employees have been under a microscope since Clinton initiated his "National Performance Review."

In an effort to install new management techniques, cut red tape, and treat citizens like important customers, reviewers have already cut 177,000 jobs. Whether or not the review has improved efficiency, workers complain the president, like other politicians, has been too quick to stoke the antibureaucratic bonfire. When he unveiled the review, they note, he said the federal work force was "inefficient and outdated" and rife with a culture of "complacency and entitlement."

Some conservatives are more blunt. During the last shutdown, Texas senator and presidential candidate Phil Gramm (R) suggested that nobody would miss the furloughed workers. When asked what he would do with the State Department if elected president, long-shot GOP hopeful Morry Taylor responded: "Dynamite it."

Such provocative statements rankle federal employees - particularly in the wake of last year's bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Not only are such stereotypes unfair and dangerous, they say, but they could also turn the federal government into the employer of last resort. "Because of this shutdown, a lot of federal workers will say 'I'm fed up, I've got skills, and I'm leaving,' " says Rep. Al Wynn (D) of Maryland. "They say 'run government like a business,' but no business would abuse its employees like this."

Or would it?

Still pretty secure

According to Bill Dickens of the Brookings Institution in Washington, government jobs are still far more secure than their counterparts in the private sector. Mr. Dickens says that every year, 10 to 25 percent of all nongovernment jobs disappear - a figure that has held steady since the early 1980s. Just last week, telecommunications giant AT&T announced plans to eliminate 40,000 positions.

"Most people deal with this kind of uncertainty every day," says Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers' Union in Washington. "Short checks and furloughs are something people have been facing for years in the private sector."

Yet despite a 14 percent decline in federal job opportunities, and the likelihood of thousands more layoffs, some experts say today's college graduates are no less interested in public service.

"The salary and benefits are outstanding on the federal payroll," says Patrick Sheetz, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "The ability to fulfill your obligation and retire is very attractive, and the probability of being laid off is still low."

By all accounts, however, so is morale. In today's cost-slashing political climate, government workers are far more likely to be described as "bureaucrats" than "public servants." In a 1994 ABC News poll, 68 percent of respondents said they were "dissatisfied or angry" with the way government works.

The most intractable problem with the federal work force, Mr. Sepp says, is that the civil service system doesn't always reward merit, but places emphasis on seniority and political connections. Without incentives for good work, he argues, managers have a tough time firing laggards.

But not everybody agrees that the federal bureaucracy is bloated and inefficient. Mike Ornstein, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, notes that the total federal work force is smaller now than at any time since President Kennedy's administration.

Of the 2.1 million to 2.3 million federal employees, he notes, only 13 to 15 percent are based in Washington. The largest growth in employment is outside the beltway in fields like corrections, nursing, and computer service.

"As long as government works, you don't see it," says John Sturdivant, head of the American Federation of Government Employees. "You don't worry about air traffic controllers until there's a crash."

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