January 26, 2019: A Hard Return

Hundreds of thousands of furloughed Federal employees and the contractors who support them are preparing to return to work on Monday. While I personally am glad to be returning to a job that I value and love, I know that the 5-week shutdown is going to make this return much harder than a typical 2-week Christmas break. Below are three of my concerns. All of them affect my work directly.

Retention. I work with a number of Millennials. I wonder how many of them have been posting their resumes and examining other career options. People choose Government jobs for security. However, with this latest shutdown, lasting 5 weeks, causing workers to miss two paychecks, and the possibility of another shutdown in three weeks, people are doubting the security of their Federal Government jobs. I would not be surprised to see a number of young staff departing. Senior staff may also follow suit, and some may choose to retire sooner than otherwise.

Recruitment. I’m inserting a segment from an article from PBS.

As potential employees decide whether to apply for government jobs, Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said the shutdown is sending a clear message.

If the government was a private company, it would be viewed as “an abusive employer, led by a fickle CEO. Its board of directors on Capitol Hill are fragmented and divided,” Light said. “It’s a terrible signal to send to the incoming class of federal employees.”

Light said many young people, including those he teaches, want to make a difference in the world coming out of college, and are ripe for recruitment to public service. But now they could be rethinking their options.

Several science students considering jobs at federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation told The Verge that the shutdown was causing them to rethink their career paths.If the government was a private company, it would be viewed as “an abusive employer, led by a fickle CEO.”

The shutdown’s impact on federal hiring is also being felt at the highest levels of government. Kevin Hassett, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told The New York Times this week that a graduate student told the council he might not take the federal job he was offered because the government could not bring him onto the payroll.

This may make it very hard to fill vacancies, causing those who are currently filling in to burn out and leave. This could cause a vicious circle.

Contractor Support. During the 2013 shutdown, firms that were providing services for my Agency had moved their staff to other organizations. When we returned to work after the 16-day shutdown, contractor staff that I had been working with were no longer there. I am very concerned about a repeat of this. I’m quoting, in entirety, this post on LinkedIn from the point of view of a Government contracting firm.

It seems that leaders may finally be coming around to the realization that the impact of the ongoing partial government shutdown is far less about immigration policy than it is about the millions of people directly affected by it. And the human impact goes well beyond the estimated 800,000 federal workers who are going without paychecks right now. Every one of those stories is different and they are all heartbreaking. That’s where most of the media coverage begins and ends, regretfully. There is a bigger story about a much larger, nation-wide workforce that is dealing with the same issues today – mortgages, groceries, utilities, tuition, etc. There are also longer-term, bigger-picture repercussions, which may be even more severe and impactful to the federal government downstream. 

Professional Services companies, i.e., support contractors, play a massive role in the conduct of our government’s business. I’m not talking about the contractors that build or maintain facilities and infrastructure. This is about the millions of smart, passionate, and experienced private sector employees who work side-by-side with federal counterparts every day to make the government work. Many have spent their entire careers supporting the public sector and consider themselves civil servants, regardless of whether their paycheck comes directly from Treasury. Having spent the first 22 years of my career as a federal employee, I can attest that these people are every bit as important to the government mission as the clients they support. Many of these support contractors are not receiving paychecks right now either. They are incurring the same debts as their public sector counterparts, but they will never see back pay and are not accruing leave. 

Those who are being paid are depleting their own personal time off, or PTO to do so. Many of them are permitted to carry negative PTO balances, which is a different kind of debt and puts additional financial strain on their employers, many of which are small businesses. These small businesses that allow employees to go “in the hole” on PTO can only afford to do so for a short period of time, and will eventually need to furlough. The resulting impact for this group of forgotten patriots is: no check, no back pay, and no time off, not only for this year but perhaps next year as well. They are giving up family vacations. They will miss school plays and sports tournaments. They will come to work when they are ill, to the detriment of themselves and their co-workers. They will have no time to simply get away now and again, as every workforce study conducted in the past 30 years says is important for personal and professional well-being.

Some will leave the business of government service forever, and that will have a massive impact when the government re-opens. This impact is multiplied given that the most mobile of these experts are the best and brightest at what they do. They will have other options. Hence, the returning workforce will be both depleted and diluted. Many of the small businesses which employ these valuable people are not only on stop work orders today but have not even been paid for the services they delivered before the shutdown because the federal employees who approve invoices and make payments are on furlough themselves. This affects every small business differently; I fear many of these important companies will close their doors in one way or another if the shutdown is not resolved soon. At some point for all of us, money that does not come in cannot go out. 

This presents yet another layer to an already massive problem. Turning contracts back on after a stop work order is complex enough; what if the vendor is no longer around to take that call? Without their support teams in place, many federal employees will have trouble accomplishing their missions when they finally do return to work and their paychecks resume. 

The simple and unfortunate reality is that the services provided to the American people by the federal government will continue to be impacted, long after the shutdown is over. Some key support contractor personnel will not return to the public sector and cannot be faulted for their decision. Some will need to find new employers because the one they worked for, perhaps for their entire career, will no longer exist. Those who decide to return will do so feeling less passionate about their mission, to the detriment of their performance. And some of their small business employers will be faced with trying to recover from losing 10-15% of their annual revenue – training, capital investment, company events, etc. are all at risk there. Finally, the most problematic long-term impact could be the reality that it was already difficult recruiting the best and brightest next generation workers into the public sector. Why would any of them sign up for this?

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