Today’s Courier Herald Column:
I “grew up” working in a hardware store in Fayetteville Georgia, a store our family bought just after I turned 13. Before that time, my father was a federal government employee. He spent the first 22 years of his professional life as an internal auditor, investigating and preparing fraud cases against those who chose to illegally appropriate taxpayer funds for personal uses.
While there were excellent benefits of being a career civil servant then, there was also the stigma that went along with being a federal employee. At times, I know it grated on my father. He didn’t let it bother him too much. His work was honorable. His co-workers were excellent people that became his lifelong friends. My middle name, Burnham, was the surname of his boss when I was born – a man whom I was honored to know for almost three decades before his passing.
There was a certain security that went with being a federal employee that made up for the fact that wages would be a bit lower than private sector equivalent work, and that promotion opportunities would be few after a certain level was reached. Still, Dad and his friends worked hard and traveled extensively catching and prosecuting those who would steal from the government. After all, those people were stealing from all of us.
The general work environment changed over time. Budget cuts made the work environment even more stressful. More was asked from a department that was given less, and the tolerance for the occasional accounting irregularity or the acceptable explanation that it was just sloppy work grew frustrating.
Then, in the early eighties, there was talk of furloughs and pay cuts or freezes. For those who remained in dad’s unit, the stress levels took their toll. There were increasing stress induced illnesses. Dad’s best friend at work retired early due to medical disability. Just 8 years short of retirement, Dad decided it was best for him and our family that he move on and work in the private sector.
It wasn’t an easy choice, but one that he seemed to have little regret or willingness to look back. It provided me and the rest of our family a very different connection with our town and a lot of great people and experiences we would have never had if Dad had just decided to grind out another 8 years. Still, the process leading up to the decision and the work environment that was created to force the change was at a high cost to dad and the many good people he worked with at the time.
I say that to say this. There will be a lot of talk of sequester going forward. Many of the effects have been overstated, but that does not mean there will not be a human toll within the federal ranks.
Those of us that understand that there need to be cuts to federal spending should not make those working in federal positions our adversary. Most are hardworking people and should not bear the blame that they are working within a system that is bloated and broken. They have lives and families that will be affected by pay cuts and/or job terminations.
In a perfect world the best employees would be retained and placed on projects and programs that are the most needed and have the most positive impact for the taxpayers. Instead, many of the cuts will be uniform and across the board. In a system that strives for everyone to be equal, the pain will be shared among the most and least productive.
Federal employees are not the enemy. Spending beyond our means is. Some of the employees, however, will be the first to have to realize and acknowledge that changes that are best for the country will force them to make changes that are best for them. This is never easy, whether working in the public or private sector.
Private sector companies downsize and reorganize regularly to meet the needs and conditions of the market as it exists. We accept this as what must occur so that the company can survive. The Federal government must do the same. But in pushing for this temporarily painful but necessary part of the process, let us all remember that there is a human cost to these changes, and be mindful of those who are affected.