Federal workers fret about the future Government job no longer a ticket to pay, security

November 26, 1995|By Brad Snyder and Kerry A. White | Brad Snyder and Kerry A. White,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

For years, a job with the federal government seemed like a ticket to middle-class contentment: decent pay, generous benefits, iron-clad job security.

These days, federal jobs are causing more stress than comfort. When budget talks in Washington hit an impasse this month, nearly 800,000 federal workers were furloughed for six days. Although all were called back -- with pay -- their deeper fears were hardly assuaged.

With President Clinton and Congress intent on permanently shrinking the government and eliminating tens of thousands of jobs, many of Maryland's 300,000 federal workers are fretting about their futures.

"In 21 years, morale has never been this bad," said Gloria Miles of Hyattsville, who works at the Federal Communications Commission. "We thought Clinton was for federal workers and that there were people in Congress looking out for us. There's no one to trust now but God."

Ms. Miles, a 48-year-old publications assistant, is a single mother who helps support two children and two grandchildren. Uneasy about her job status, she has curtailed shopping and begun bringing her lunch to work.

"Christmas is going to be tough this year," she said.

The threat to federal workers comes from two fronts: the White House and Congress.

Last year, the Clinton administration enacted a plan to reduce the federal work force by 272,000 over five years, mainly through buyouts and unfilled vacancies. About 100,000 jobs have already been cut.

The Republican-led Congress wants to trim programs, shrink departments and eliminate agencies -- actions that threaten untold thousands of jobs. Those cuts would come mostly from layoffs.

And a just-released, controversial study by the General Accounting Office suggests that hundreds of thousands of federal workers are paid more than their job descriptions say they are worth.

All told, the reductions could eliminate some 20,000 federal jobs in Maryland over the next four years, and 20,000 Marylanders who work for federal agencies in Washington could lose their jobs, according to Mahlon R. Straszheim, an economist at the University of Maryland.

Economic growth stalled

The cuts come at a particularly unfortunate time for Maryland, Mr. Straszheim said, because economic growth has stalled.

"This is going to be a fundamental change for the state's economy, a real challenge to the state," he said. "The governor has been working to spur private business to absorb the blows."

But federal employees like Raymond Helmick, a 44-year-old airplane mechanic from Brooklyn Park, worry that their options in the private sector are few.

Mr. Helmick has six years to go before his retirement. The government has cut his department at Fort Meade from 80 to 40 and is transferring the remaining jobs to a base in Virginia.

Given the slump in the airline industry, Mr. Helmick said, he doubts that he will be able to find a job by spring. His mortgage hangs in the balance.

"I started with the government because it was a secure job with decent wages," he said. "This is a big setback."

Reduction essential

Republicans, who have promised to balance the federal budget in seven years, say it is essential to reduce the size of government, scale back entitlements and shift responsibility for many services to the states. The House, for example, has proposed to dismantle the Commerce Department and to shrink many other departments.

"If you're really serious about balancing the budget, you have to do real things," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and member of the Congressional Reform and Oversight Committee. "That includes everything across the

board -- entitlements, federal employees, the whole nine yards."

But union leaders say the Republican proposals are especially harsh. Unlike the Clinton administration plan, they include widespread layoffs, rather than buyouts, and the layoffs would occur not over five years but soon after legislation is enacted.

"[The Clinton plan] was a positive approach to downsizing that let federal employees and their managers -- who know best how to get the job done -- work it out," said Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union.

"Now we have a federal government that's at its lowest since Kennedy and a Congress saying it doesn't matter."

Some spending bills to finance individual agencies and departments are still in limbo. And as the budget battle between Congress and the president rages, there is near-panic at many ** agencies because the money the agencies depend on has not been appropriated. In some cases, agencies know the money will fall short. So they have already begun layoffs.

According to the Federal Employment and Retirement Monitor, jobs have been eliminated at NASA (1,400), the U.S. Geological Survey (525), the Office of Personnel Management (294) and the Federal Communications Commission (180).

The Departments of Energy (3,788) and Health and Human Services (2,400) have agreed to job eliminations over five years.

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