Everybody knows that federal workers are overpaid, with their great salaries and generous benefits. But what everybody "knows" isn’t so for a large group of federal employees. These are the support staff: administrative workers, often black and/or female, whose good government jobs don’t pay them enough to keep their heads above water. Typically they are GS-3’s through 5’s. The salary range in the DC area from GS-3, Step 1 through GS-5, Step 10 is from 23,589 to 44,293.
Try living on that if you’re black, female, and possibly a single parent raising a child or grandchild and you’ll soon find yourself in the shadowland explored by Barbara Ehrenreich in her classic Nickled and Dimed. You live from paycheck to paycheck. You might have to forget about your federal health insurance—too expensive. Any misfortune or misstep can send you over the cliff’s edge into financial disaster.
Here in the office of AFGE Local 2782, at the Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, we see and hear the consequences of inadequate pay, including medical disaster and homelessness, all the time.
Last summer one of our members and her teenage daughter lived in their car for five months. Eventually they made arrangements to stay with another member until they could get back on their feet. We know a family with three children living in a motel. The mother, a federal employee, makes about $30,000 and her husband is out of work. As I write, at least one of our members is living in a shelter. Our meetings and lunch and Learn sessions are popular with some of our older workers, who attend for the free Subway or pizza—it helps out with their food bill.
Poorly-paid federal employees cope as best they can. Many defer retirement and work into their late sixties or seventies. Some claim as many as thirty federal tax exemptions—this is a strategy that offers short-term relief and long-term headaches when the IRS catches on and garnishes their salary. Many work a second job.
The real way to help our working poor feds is to pay them more. There are several ways a willing federal leadership can do it. Many support staff are actually doing work above their grade level; they need to be promoted. It is not unusual, though, to find support staff who have been GS-4s for a decade or more. Temporary, or "mixed-tour" workers need counseling and a clear path to permanent employment.
Some workers—and this seems like the worst violation of employment ethics to us—are getting work not only above their grade level but in a job series with more potential—for example, secretaries at Census doing the work of survey statisticians. These workers need to move into the job series that best describes their actual work. Finally, these employees—among the most loyal and hard-working Feds—need training to keep them productive and advancing. Too often management denies training, especially to older support staff, dooming them to low pay and a dead-end job.
It’s time to end the shabby treatment of support staff and treat these loyal public servants with the respect, and pay them the money, that they deserve.
Bill Schauman is president of AFGE Local 2782 and is a GS-12 information technology specialist. He previously worked as a consultant at US Airways and at Freddie Mac.