Federal employees at Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn were angrily hissing descriptions yesterday of their role in the federal budget crisis.
Pawns. Guinea pigs. Scapegoats. Whipping boys. Hostages. Cannon fodder.
But they could call themselves one thing more: full-time employees.
Federal employees greeted an 11th-hour budget deal that averted worker furloughs and pay cuts of up to 40 percent with relief tinged by bitterness.
"Government morale is so bad we take things in stride, sort of 'que sera, sera,' whatever will be, will be," said Cecile Hamermesh, a 17-year veteran of Social Security, which has 14,000 employees in Woodlawn and Baltimore.
"We used to feel management was screwing us. Now we feel the bigger guys are screwing us and getting rid of the middleman."
Some of Maryland's 132,000 federal workers were glued to the news all weekend; others blocked out the budget drama. But all got up yesterday with their jobs -- if not their pride or their retirement plans -- intact.
Last-minute congressional games of "chicken" to keep the federal payroll afloat are nothing new, but many employees said this year's impasse seemed more real and frightening.
"The war, the S&L crisis, banks going down the tubes, the deficit -- all these things combined, it was like a big cloud of doom over us," said Kathleen Diehl of the Soil Conservation Service in Annapolis. "You felt something has got to give, and it might be us this time -- and it still may be. This is not over yet."
The budget agreement reached Sunday still faces a tough fight for congressional approval. It puts off threatened furloughs only until next week.
"Like everybody else, I've been nervous," said Karen Parker, one of 2,400 workers at the Health Care Financing Administration, Social Security's neighbor on the Woodlawn campus. "People are concerned due to the general state of the economy. This just adds more pressure."
"Morale is low," said Patricia Bellamy, a Department of Health and Human Services legal secretary at Woodlawn. "Nobody wants to have their pay cut. Nobody wants to go out and get a part-time job. No one wants creditors calling their house asking for money."
Ken Schreiber, a management analyst with 25 years at Social Security, said budget brinkmanship loaded "stress and aggravation" on federal workers. He criticized agency managers for not providing counseling for employees who needed it.
"They think everybody should just forget it and go along their merry way, but people can't live like this," he said. "It's like the movie 'Network'
with people yelling out the windows, 'We're not going to take it anymore!' That's what I wish would happen. They're just stepping on people."
The budget deal leaves federal employees' cost-of-living raises intact but would eliminate retiring workers' option of collecting pension benefits in lump-sum payments.
Allen Savadkin, an employee of the Health Care Financing Administration only six months away from retirement eligibility, said he had planned to take the lump sum, as about 70 percent of federal workers do.
"Personally, I was looking forward to my retirement plan. It was a sure thing," he said. "Government work used to offer security. But not anymore."
About 900 Baltimore-area Social Security workers are now eligible for retirement, said Phil Gambino, an agency spokesman.
If the budget deal goes through, some may accelerate their retirements to collect lump-sum payments. The payments average more than $30,000, said Alvin S. Levy, executive vice president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers for the Social Security and health care financing agencies.
"There's an old economic principle that says you take money when you can get it," said Mike Mason, a policy analyst at the health care financing agency with 29 years' experience. "I'd hate to see [the lump-sum option] go, but it wasn't part of the original package when I decided to go with the government. I really wasn't counting on it."
Some Social Security workers were confused yesterday about how many hours they were supposed to work. Mr. Levy complained that the agency had "gone out of its way to make employees and the public as miserable as possible."
"We're all confused," conceded Mr. Gambino, the agency spokesman. But he said employees who needed to go home early yesterday were allowed to take "liberal leave" time -- vacation hours for which no advance approval was required.
Amid the relief of having averted the furloughs, at least one Social Security worker said the budget accord came as something of a disappointment.
"I just had twins," said Bill Kelley, an actuary, "and I was looking forward to having a day off."