WASHINGTON — There was a time when being a federal employee meant a steady paycheck, great benefits and pride in serving the country.
But these days, many federal workers are frustrated, anxious and growing tired of being pawns in a never-ending political struggle over government funding.
"The pay has fallen behind, the uncertainty of having a job from day to day, the stability which was a drawing factor for a large portion of the people is gone now," said Tommy Jackson, an Air Force acquisitions manager in Warner Robins, Ga., who has spent 30 years in government.
Jackson, 54, is going through his second furlough of the year. He and his wife, Debbie, also a government employee, lost about $6,000 in wages this year when they were furloughed for six days each. Now the shutdown, and he said they are considering options to move into the private sector.
"That six-day furlough cost us a good bit of money," he said. "I'm sitting out right now, I don't know if it'll be for a day, a month or two months. I don't want to operate that way."
Jackson spoke before the House voted 407-0 Saturday to reimburse federal workers for lost pay during the shutdown. The Senate has indicated that it will go along, and President Barack is expected to sign the bill.
For many, working for the government has long been a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle. Federal jobs offered flexibility, security, solid health care and pensions. Raises and promotions were common. Whatever happened to the economy, Uncle Sam never went bankrupt or threatened to close down.
But federal employees today are working under a three-year pay freeze. Earlier this year, many were furloughed when automatic spending cuts took hold, and about 800,000 were told not to report the money during the current shutdown. There are proposals in Congress to increase retirement contributions for government workers and politicians regularly lash out at federal workers as lazy, overpaid and unnecessary.
For Marcelo del Canto, a budget analyst for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Md., working for the government was supposed to be a respite from the ups and downs of the technology industry.
"I worked for some pretty big companies and a lot of these Internet companies that got hit by the dot com bust, so I went through a lot of bankruptcies, laying off workers," del Canto said. "My wife said 'You really need to get out of the private sector, the federal government is really the way to go.'"
Both del Canto and his wife, who also works for the government, have been furloughed and they worry about making the next mortgage payment on a house they purchased in March. He says he still loves his job, but "it's a very uncomfortable and uneasy situation when you never know if we're going to shut down. It's just not something you can plan for and it impacts you on a real basis every day."
Dan Delgado, a furloughed equipment mechanic at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, wonders if he should look for a backup job. Delgado, 49, a military veteran, said he had assumed Congress would avert a shutdown at the last minute.
"I thought Uncle Sam never gets broken," Delgado said. "I was blinded somehow."
The Minnesota National Guard said it was putting 1,207 of its 2,100 full-time military support personnel on furlough until further notice.
Rick Swenson, of Catonsville, Md., said he retired in 2012 after spending 38 years working at the U.S. Agriculture Department because he was worried his retirement benefits would be cut and was tired of the constant criticism that was directed at federal workers.
"You hear a lot of snide commentary about government people and what a cushy job they have and all that kind of stuff," said Swenson, 60, who worked as an administrative officer. "It certainly doesn't help your morale."
Swenson, said most federal employees still have a strong belief in the mission of the government and want to do public service. But "it's getting tougher and tougher because we've seen a great erosion in pay and benefits."
Federal employees are retiring at a faster rate this year than in 2012, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. About 82,000 federal workers have filed retirement claims since January, up 30 percent from claims filed last year.
The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association says many workers are retiring prematurely because they worry about furloughs, the pay freeze pay and looming increases in retirement contributions. The group argues that these departures are creating a brain drain that is sapping the government of institutional knowledge needed to for medical breakthroughs, combatting foodborne illnesses or even securing borders.
Jackson, the Air Force acquisitions manager, said the growing anxiety among federal workers will make it tougher for the government to compete with private industry to hire the best and the brightest technical minds.
"When I went to work for the government 30 years ago, I knew wasn't going to get rich doing this," he said. "But I felt strongly enough about this that this was something I wanted to do. The last two years, I've felt that our Congress has turned their backs on us."
Associated Press Writer Brian Bakst in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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