By Kelly Arsenault
As we draw closer to a government shutdown, I have been reading with great interest. You see, I am a federal employee employed at Fort Drum as a civilian mail clerk. I am looking at the possibility of a furlough for as long as it takes for Congress to reach an agreement. It could be days or it could be weeks, but regardless of how long, I am more concerned at how much. How much will this affect my family? How much will it hurt us financially? The uncertainty is maddening as I, and my fellow federal workers, watch the stage show that is called Washington Politics gamble with our way of making a living.
As I have been reading articles about the progress, or lack thereof, in Congress, I am more dismayed by the comments of so many. Comments such as “SHUT IT DOWN!” and “let the federal workers get a real job!” are common. There seems to be a misinterpretation about being a federal employee that is rampant in not only the general public, but with certain members of Congress as well. Yes, as with any government agency, there is waste and certain things need to be pared down. Maybe there are more upper level employees in the federal system than there were ten years ago, but that is not the proper snapshot of a federal employee. Many of us are on the lower end of the pay scale, making the same or slightly less than our counterparts in the civilian sector.
I am one of those federal workers at the lower end of the pay scale. I am not rolling around in the big bucks like others may think. I came to the federal service because, quite honestly, the local economy of Watertown, New York, was not affording me many opportunities. Many of the jobs here are part time. Some want a higher education, but do not offer a higher wage. Positions that were once wide open to me with my Associates degree are now being offered to those with Bachelors and Masters degrees because there is little for those with the higher degrees either. The job position may say “Associates required” but if an employer can get a person with a Masters for the price of an Associates, we all know who they will choose. How does it make me a bad person because I chose to work for the federal government to provide for my family comfortably? How did we become the bad guy?
Hopefully I can dispel some myths that the general population may be thinking about federal workers and the government shutdown. One myth is that if we are furloughed, that we will get a paid vacation because we will get back pay anyway. While it is true that after the government shutdown during the Clinton administration that Congress approved the back pay for non-essential personnel, it is up to Congress to do so. In the climate permeating Congress this time, it’s not a given and many of us that rely on our paycheck will not receive one. That’s no income for scores of federal employees that need to buy the groceries that are at their most expensive in thirty years, the gasoline that rises in price daily, and the financial obligations that must be met.
Another myth is the term “non-essential personnel”. This term, non-essential personnel, seems to imply not relevant or not really needed. I saw a comment on an article stating that “if they are not essential, why not fired them all?!” This is why. Essential is defined as someone whose primary job responsibilities are directly related to constitutional responsibilities, related to the protection of human life, or related to the protection of property. That means employees like police officers, firefighters, medical workers, and security. Essential personnel will have to work during the furlough and will get paid but only when Congress passes a budget. The rest of us, are non-essential, but we are still needed. We are the people in the background, the ones not always seen; clerks, budget, personal care, public works crews. Hardworking individuals just trying to make a living, just trying to live that American Dream we hear so much about.
Federal Workers are like everyone else. We get up in the morning, we go to work, we work a job, and we get paid. We work to provide for our families and hope for a little left over to enjoy the fun things in life. We are not underworked and overpaid. We are not the biggest draw on the economy. People need to see that the repercussions on shutting down the government are larger than what they appear. This are working families we are talking about, not ideology.