Government jobs were considered stable. Now the damage from the shutdown could cause workers to flee

Key Points
  • The longest funding lapse ever has damaged worker morale and led to concerns that talented federal employees could leave government jobs.
  • Government jobs have generally been considered stable positions for years.
Protesters hold signs during a protest rally by government workers and concerned citizens against the government shutdown on Friday, January 11, 2019 at Post Office Square near the Federal building, headquarters for the EPA and IRS in Boston.
Joseph Prezioso | AFP | Getty Images

For years, government jobs have earned a reputation as stable. Employees could generally count on few surprises, good benefits and a solid retirement. For many workers, it comes with the reward of feeling like they helped the public.

The record-long government shutdown, which ended late Friday with a deal to fund several federal departments through Feb. 15, has damaged that notion.

Even after the impasse between Congress and the White House ended on its 35th day, after hundreds of thousands of people faced another missed paycheck and staffing shortages caused delays at airports, the closure threatened recruitment and retention of top talent in federal departments.

On Friday, about 800,000 federal workers missed their second paychecks, since funding for nine departments lapsed on Dec. 22. Many faced furloughs, while others have had to toil without pay. President Donald Trump and lawmakers have pledged that the employees will get back pay.

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However, much of the damage has already been done. The missed paydays have left thousands of workers scrambling to cover meals and bills, selling personal items or seeking temporary or permanent work outside of their government posts.

Some U.S. employees and outside groups advocating for them worry the political fight over Trump's proposed border wall — which could force another shutdown as early as next month, if the president and Congress can't reach an accord — will drive talented people away from government service.

"I expect there will be some long-term repercussions of this in terms of really good people deciding this is not the career they signed up for," one American diplomat posted in Europe who declined to be named said last week about younger people entering the foreign service. The official, who also mentioned Trump's travel ban as a potential factor in driving young diplomats away, is reporting to work during the shutdown and not getting paid.

The federal government employs about 2 million civilians, according to the Office of Personnel Management. While many conservatives such as Office of Management and Budget Director and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney would like to see cuts, federal employment has stayed steady in recent years. The government does send much of its work to private contractors. (Contractors are in dire straits, too. There are about 10,000 companies that are contracted by government agencies affected by the shutdown, according to The Washington Post.)

Federal funding has lapsed 21 times since 1976, according to the Congressional Research Service. While workers did not face furloughs in all of those cases, they have during recent shutdowns. With the current partial closure entering its record 35th day and leading to at least two missed paychecks, it has become particularly demoralizing for people considering government work.

Democratic bill to end shutdown fails in Senate
Democratic bill to end shutdown fails in Senate

People entering government jobs often take the posts knowing they could make more money in the private sector. Many — whether in affected areas such as the State Department, Department of Housing and Urban Development or FBI — believe in the mission of their agency.

Having a passion for the work only goes so far when employees get paychecks for $0.

"Very few people in either the public or private sector can probably tolerate that and be in any kind of great shape," said a representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest government worker union. The AFGE official declined to be named.

Congress has created a great deal of uncertainty for government workers in recent years. Funding lapsed — though only briefly — twice last year. Lawmakers have hopped from one short-term continuing resolution to the next to keep the government running, which also creates uncertainty for workers.

But employees have felt the pain of this shutdown more sharply. For some, it means finding stopgap sources of income when they cannot go to work, such as driving for Uber. For others, it means considering another line of work entirely — and potentially taking their skills away from public service.

One unidentified FBI special agent in the Northeast region said younger bureau employees "have said they will find work elsewhere" if the shutdown is prolonged, according to a statement released by the FBI Agents Association, which advocates for active and retired agents. The official said, "I can't imagine attracting new qualified applicants" due to the shutdown, and speculated that talented people could seek other work.

Another special agent in the Washington, D.C., region with a computer science degree questioned the notion of working without pay.

"Putting up with lower pay than the private sector only makes sense when you actually get paid," the unidentified agent said in a statement issued by the FBIAA.

Morale was already taking a hit

The shutdown hit at a time when government worker morale was already suffering. Policies such as the travel ban hampered some officials' enthusiasm. But the Trump administration has also proposed stark cuts to various departments in its budget proposals.

Employee engagement fell in 2018 in 59.1 percent of federal organizations ranked by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for efficient government. Engagement rose in only 39.6 percent of entities listed in its Best Places to Work in Federal Government report, while it stayed the same in 1.3 percent of organizations.

Funding lapses only make matters worse, and could deter qualified people from government posts, according to Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

"There is no other job that you could be required to be in where you have to work with no paycheck," Stier said. "So it hurts the morale, it hurts the ability to encourage new people to come in."

Employment with the federal government has offered particular stability to black Americans. The government is broadly considered a less discriminatory employer than many private sector companies — which Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, noted during an NAACP telephone town hall earlier this month.

Black employees made up about 18 percent of executive branch workers in 2017, according to the Office of Personnel Management. During the NAACP event, Fudge said that when Trump suggested on Twitter that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats, he really meant most of those not getting paychecks are black, according to Cleveland.com.

Trump administration faces criticism

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says unpaid federal workers should take out loans
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says unpaid federal workers should take out loans

Meanwhile, White House officials have faced backlash for an apparent lack of empathy toward unpaid government workers. In a CNBC interview Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he does not "really quite understand" why government workers are going to food banks when they could take out loans.

Democrats, who have highlighted the plight of government employees as polls show most Americans blame Trump for the shutdown, pounced on his comments Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the remark as a "let them eat cake" attitude.

Then, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said that the workers are "volunteering" because "they believe government service is honorable and they believe in President Trump and they're working as hard as ever."

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request to comment on the perceived lack of empathy or the potential for government workers to leave their jobs.

Trump has repeatedly said many federal employees agree with him on border security and believe in his push to build the proposed wall. The AFGE representative estimated that only a "tiny, tiny percentage" of federal employees agree with the president's tactics.

The White House and Congress had failed for weeks to break an impasse over Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to construct the barrier. On Thursday, two bills to reopen the government — one with funds for the wall and another without — failed in the Senate.

A Democratic-backed measure to temporarily fund the government, which the president threatened to veto, earned more votes in the GOP-held Senate than a Trump-backed plan. While neither of the proposals ended the impasse, the votes appeared to kick-start the first serious negotiations in weeks.

Republicans, likewise, have tried to put pressure on Democrats by proposing bills to pay government workers who are not receiving paychecks. Democrats have rejected those proposals, urging the GOP to reopen the government, which would ensure the employees get paychecks. It is unclear how the GOP proposals would ensure people get paid if Congress does not pass appropriations bills.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talked about a way out of the closure Thursday as senators from both parties called for a short-term plan to fund the government for three weeks. Trump said he would support such a plan, but only if he got a "down payment" on the wall. Pelosi called any funding for the barrier a nonstarter.

Until Friday's resolution, it wasn't certain how long the shutdown would have lasted, or what level of pain for government workers would force lawmakers to end it. The fact that a political fight, rather than the merits of their work, caused federal employees to go without pay could make them even more disillusioned, the Partnership for Public Service's Stier said.

"They're in their jobs because they care about the missions of the organizations they're working for," he said. "The worst thing you can do is say, 'you can't do what you care about.' Particularly when it's saying that you can't do what you came to work for, not because of your work, but because of some political fight."

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