Federal employee reps warn about flagging morale

Reduced compensation and higher work demands are demoralizing federal employees and lowering the quality of the government workforce, representatives from several major federal employee groups said in testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon.

J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said that pay freezes combined with new requirements that government employees put more money towards their pensions would risk leaving an entire generation of workers “impoverished.”

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Cox and other representatives were testifying at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on the Efficiency & Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce.

Cox, whose organization represents over 600,000 federal employees, said the pension contribution requirement was being imposed not because pensions were underfunded but because government salaries were being treated as an “ATM” by lawmakers.

The government shutdown of October 2013, which furloughed thousands of workers and caused their pay to be delayed, was the “last straw” for many workers, said Cox.

“These are real people who suffer real problems, not pawns on a political chessboard,” he said. 

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 federal workers, emphasized the greater stress on employees due to cuts in staff. The IRS, she said, has 10,000 fewer employees than four years ago, but the amount of work to be done has increased, causing a decline in service and unhappiness within the ranks. 

“For federal employees, the government shutdown was just another indication that Congress does not place importance on the work that they do,” Kelley said. 

Kelley reiterated her union’s request that federal pay be raised by 3.3 percent in the 2015 budget, rather than the 1 percent boost proposed by President Obama. With Republicans still strongly against increased spending, such a request remains decidedly unlikely to be fulfilled.

Motivating the hearing were several recent surveys on the government workforce which have shown declining satisfaction and well-being among employees. One survey by the Senior Executive Association (SES) found that among the government’s roughly 7,000 top non-political officials, 51 percent described their agency’s morale as low or very low.

Another study, the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings produced by the Partnership for Public Service, found that workers were growing less satisfied in every dimension of work satisfaction that the survey measured.  Max Stier, the organization’s president and CEO, was among those testifying.

Only half of federal employees were happy with their pay, Stier said, a 13-point decrease from 2010, while significantly less than half thought good work, creativity, and innovation were rewarded at work. Overall, he said, government workers are the unhappiest they have been since PPS began publishing its rankings in 2003.

Katherine Archuleta, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), tried to offer a more optimistic perspective, noting that the OPM’s own survey of federal employees found that over 80 percent of federal workers enjoyed their work and saw how it related to broader government priorities. 

The U.S. senators in attendance at the hearing focused their questions on whether low morale and enthusiasm, combined with a slow federal hiring process, was hurting the government’s ability to fill needed roles.

Carol Waller Pope, Chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, told Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that despite pay freezes and the shutdown, the government still received hundreds of applications for every open position on usajobs.com, the federal government’s online hiring portal.

Archuleta, meanwhile, emphasized that enthusiasm for joining the government remained high. 

“When I go out about the country, there is a strong interest in public service.”