Finding stability studying stress in government lab for 36 years

Award to be presented to longtime employee

May 05, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In today's frenetic, stock-driven, high-tech, love-'em-and-leave-'em workplace, turnover and temp jobs are in, longevity and loyalty are out.

That makes Joe Kluczynski an anomaly. People look at Kluczynski's 36 years with the same federal service and say: huh?

"You just find a home," he explains. "It's nice work if you can get it."

Kluczynski, a laboratory animal technician at the Pavlovian Research Laboratory of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Perry Point, studies stress by conducting experiments with rats. Given the extra hours he puts in, he often feels like part of the experiment.

But the work is good. Comfortable. So he's stayed for more than a third of a century on this thumb of land where the Susquehanna meets the bay. He was working on Perry Point when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and when the Vietnam War ended. He's survived six CEOs, from Johnson to Clinton, whose policies have contributed to the end of his -- and many other -- federal careers.

Kluczynski's lengthy run as a civil servant is scheduled to end in December, when funding for his program runs out. But at least he'll walk away knowing someone was grateful for his service.

Today, Kluczynski and other federal employees from 50 agencies across Maryland will receive Excellence in Federal Career awards. The 33-year-old unsung ceremony is designed to thank a few of the nation's 1.6 million employees who toil for Uncle Sam in relative obscurity. In Maryland, they work at such little-known agencies as the 694th Intelligence Group, the Defense Contract

Audit Agency and the Local Federal Coordinating Committee.

For Kluczynski, 56, obscurity has been one of the perks of the job. He commutes five miles from Perryville. His colleagues are lab rats. And his water cooler is the Chesapeake Bay.

"Hardly anybody knows we're here," he said. "And we like to keep it that way."

But economic realities have caught up to Kluczynski.

The lab, which opened in 1955 and once employed 20 people, now employs three. In December, Kluczynski's boss, William Pare, who has run the lab since 1965, will retire. And Kluczynski fears he'll be job-hunting in the private sector, because government technician jobs are rare. He'll have his federal retirement plan to fall back on. Still, when asked to envision life after December, he shrugs and says, "Wal-Mart."

He's only half-joking. He and his wife, a nurse at the VA hospital, have lived in the same house for 30 years. The father of two doesn't want to move. He'd never think of commuting to Baltimore.

"I'll just go looking locally for some other venue to make money," Kluczynski said. "We're very dormant, localized people. Going [100 miles] to Rehoboth is a long trip for us."

Loss of government jobs

The end of another federal career is part of a trend that began when President Clinton declared in his 1996 State of the Union address that the "era of big government is over."

Largely through post-Cold War defense cuts, more than 400,000 federal jobs have been eliminated since 1993. With about 1.6 million full-time civil servants -- and nearly 1.5 million more in military uniforms -- the federal government is the nation's largest employer: It employs more people than Wal-Mart, General Motors, Boeing, and Microsoft combined. But nonmilitary federal employment is less than half what it was at its World War II peak of 3.4 million.

Critics of Clinton's cuts and Vice President Gore's efforts to re-invent government say that although the number of federal jobs has decreased, the number of people indirectly employed by the government -- through federal contracts and grants -- has soared. In his book, "The True Size of Government," Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution calls this growing work force the "shadow of government."

That shadow is overwhelming Kluczynski's job. As the largest nonmilitary government employer, with 173 medical centers nationwide, the Veterans Affairs department has been a target for downsizing and subcontracting jobs.

Government work has been part of Kluczynski's life since he was 17. He grew up in Baltimore and Brooklyn Park, and completed a three-year Army tour at a clinical lab at Aberdeen, followed by a brief stint at a Vermont VA hospital. Kluczynski was hired at Perry Point in spring 1964. He earned $3,500 a year, and an extra $1 an hour when he worked overtime at the VA hospital, handling blood and urine samples.

"All the glamorous things," he said.

In 1989, he moved to the Pavlovian lab. As a GS-9, he earns nearly 10 times what he once did. His office in the World War I-era "Building 4" looks like a high school lab, with glass beakers, microscopes and petri dishes full of ulcer-ridden rat stomachs. One of his many jobs is to usher the rats through mazes and other experiments, monitoring how they react to stress.

"It's like `Dancing with Wolves,' but with rats," he joked.

`Unassuming, hard working'

In his nominating letter for today's award, Pare called Kluczynski, who often works nights and weekends, "unassuming" and "hard working." Even without an advanced degree, Kluczynski has published work in academic journals and has given presentations in Croatia and Hungary.

"That is quite a contribution for a `technician,' " Pare said.

Having studied stress for a long time, Kluczynski says he's learned a little about it. Like how to avoid it. That's one reason he's stayed so long: low stress and an easy lifestyle.

He likens his stay at Perry Point to the "three-hour tour" of the "Gilligan's Island" TV show, on which patrons of a tour boat become marooned on a deserted island.

He won't miss the paperwork. But he will miss the rats.

"It's a very unique job," he said. "I don't think Wal-Mart will be as interesting."

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