Should federal workers pay the price when the government closes?
posted at 2:41 pm on March 18, 2014 by Dustin Siggins
The government closed due to snowfall, yesterday. Again.
As someone who grew up in New Hampshire and shoveled roofs, put a roof on a house when it was zero degrees Fahrenheit (working for my father’s roofing business during a break in school), went to high school in 40 degrees below zero, and did it all while walking uphill both ways in bare feet, I tend to find it frustrating when the government closes for snow. While yesterday’s was justifiable — eight inches of snow fell in D.C. proper, and more than that in surrounding areas — it does bring to mind whether OPM should not give federal employees what are essentially paid vacation days.
According to the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) website, the federal government has closed five times in the last three months, including including four times since January 1, 2014. There have also been four days with two-hour delays. This is a total of six days of federal employees staying home, receiving full pay and not getting vacation days docked against them.
Unlike teachers, federal employees don’t have to “make up” days. And according to the Congressional Budget Office in 2012, most federal employees made far more than their private-sector counterparts, between pay and benefits, from 2005 to 2010. (Heritage labor expert James Sherk estimated the difference at 30 to 40 percent in his 2010 report.)
But should federal employees bear the consequences of what they are not responsible for? OPM makes its decisions at the top, and those decisions work their way down the chain by agency. Your average federal employee is not making the final decisions, in other words. And, certainly, the D.C. infrastructure makes snow-laden travel difficult, especially with so many drivers lacking any knowledge as to how to drive in snow.
On the other hand, days off are days off.
This is going to leave me open to a lot of criticism from hundreds of friends and acquaintances who work for the federal government — I live a few miles south of D.C. — but as a taxpayer, I come down on the side that says days off are days off. Barring extraordinary circumstances, the federal government should stay open. Employees should be given the option of staying home, but vacation days or pay should be docked.
Sometimes, working for the federal government has its benefits — better compensation, and a near-impossibility to be fired, for example –but there are definite downsides, such as the government shutdown last fall that left many of my friends and acquaintances temporarily without a paycheck, though they did receive back pay.
Which leads to another question: Should a Congress-initiated shutdown leave federal employees without pay? A friend who heads up a series of publications — and, as a private-sector worker, had to be at work at 8 a.m. yesterday — pointed out that federal employees take jobs knowing they have a political component, much in the same way they know firing is difficult. And he’s right.
Of course, any Member of Congress who proposed such a “radical” change in policy would be pilloried, especially since there was a partial federal pay-freeze in place for three years. However, that pay freeze pales next to what the average American has faced. According to one study reported by The New York Times last August, median income for American households was six percent below the level it was at when the recession started nearly six years before the report was published. So, again, a partial pay freeze for federal employees is better off than the losses faced by the population at large.