Another Furlough: The Desire to Serve Tested Again

by Bonnie Jenkins

January 4th, 2019

Inkstinkmedia

Photo: Scott Olson | Getty Images

Public service is a calling to serve others and to be proud of one’s work each day, even knowing that despite dedicating oneself to helping others that such dedication will often go unappreciated and in some cases, disrespected. But to be relegated to no more than a pawn during Congressional and Presidential funding and political disputes is unacceptable. “Let them eat cake” is probably an appropriate way to view how the dedicated workers of the federal government are treated each time there is a government shutdown or threat of one. During these times, the President and Congress bargain to achieve a financial or political goal. Unfortunately, many of them appear increasingly out of touch with the federal workers in the very city in which they govern and other federal workers around the US and abroad.

In 1995, the US government shut down two times. Government workers were furloughed and non-essential services suspended from November 14–19, 1995, and from December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996, for a total of 27 days. The first of the two shutdowns caused the furlough of about 800,000 workers, while the second caused about 284,000 workers. In 2013 the US government was shut down for 16 days, beginning on October 1, 2013. During that shutdown, approximately 800,000 federal employees were furloughed.

This past year, in 2018, there were three government shutdowns: The first started on January 20, 2018, and ended on the evening of Monday, January 22. A second occurred on February 9, 2018, and lasted nine hours. This recent shutdown began on December 22 and affects 380,000 federal employees who are on furlough and another 420,000 working without pay. To make matters worse, President Trump on December 29, 2018, signed an executive order to freeze pay for federal workers in 2019.

This is a problem, particularly in a situation where those most immediately affected have no significant voice in the disputes. The many federal workers furloughed must sit back quietly and wait. The vulnerable are rendered even more helpless. Of course, federal workers can hope for the best, and that calmer heads will prevail. Concessions are often made by the decision makers, and that is the only way to move forward, even if the concessions made are not necessarily good ones. Maybe efforts by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) to sue the administration over the government shutdown, claiming that it is illegal to require employees to work without pay, can bring voices of those affected into these discussions. However, it is a strange situation indeed. How does the person wanting to just go to work for the American people and the US government get caught up in all this federal government political drama?

I have enjoyed my years working for the federal government. I would have it no other way. I always knew I wanted to work in public service and cannot recall when I did not. When I was young, I joined an organization called the “Sea Cadets” and once every month on Saturday morning, I would get up early, put on a uniform, and go to my local junior high school and learn military culture and march with my fellow young friends. My first summer job when I was 16 was at the Department of Social Services in The Bronx. In my junior high school, there existed a program whereby those students that made the honor roll could go on a trip to Washington, DC and visit the many federal buildings and learn how Washington works. It was an “honor” to be going to visit Washington, DC. The Capital loomed as a place with impressive buildings, and where critical issues for the entire country are decided every day. I was fascinated. From there, I did internships while in college in NYC government. I eventually continued my education in Albany, NY to be able to work in State Government. Then, I turned my focus on finally getting to Washington. I was one of the few from law school who chose to go into federal government while most went directly to law firms. During all this, I also served in the US Naval Reserves.

I have never been disappointed. The quality of people I have worked with both as a civil servant, in the military, and as a political appointee have been phenomenal. I rarely came across the “lazy” government worker many try to espouse. I guess I was lucky not to see that side very often. Also, through it all, I was doing what my heart demanded from a young age… I was serving my country.

Federal workers certainly do not ask for a lot in return. Public service is a definite choice in a country that culturally favors the rich and famous, regardless of how one may have achieved that wealth and fame. In the federal government, the bottom line is not wealth but giving back. Public service is a choice for many who see the glass half full and believe the world can be a better place – those who believe that dedicating one’s life to helping others is in itself a reward. You make the sacrifices because you know the world is bigger than you.

However, even the call to public service is being tested considering the government shutdowns, furloughs, and pay freezes for federal workers. The consistent threat of shutdown and furloughs is genuinely pathetic. Public servants are not game pieces. The vast US government bureaucracy that provides services to so many around the US and abroad simply cannot function without them. What we see during these threats and actual federal government shutdowns are individuals who do not feel uncomfortable enough with closing the doors on people who want to go to work each day to do a public good. The perception, whether deserved or not, is that the decision makers go home with little worry about paying their rent. It is sad, but during such times of furloughs, privilege is on full display.

This is not the best way to move our government year to year. There must be a better way to ensure the government has the funding to function without jeopardizing the livelihood of federal workers. Either that or find a process to give these workers affected a voice in their own fate.

Bonnie Jenkins is Founder and Executive Director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Bonnie Jenkins