what not to say to friends who have been furloughed by the government shut-down

After last week’s post about things not to say to an out-of-work friend, regular commenter Katie the Fed — who is currently furloughed due to the government shut-down — offered to share her thoughts about what not to say to someone furloughed in the shut-down. And they’re good ones. Here’s what she had to say:

1) “If you’re furloughed, that must mean you weren’t really essential.”

The difference between those who were excepted/essential and those who were not was simply a matter of identifying the absolute bare minimum presence necessary to keep a few of the most essential functions running. The rest of us work on issues for which a two-week absence or so won’t put the country in grave danger.

For the people who remain in the office, many of them are now doing the job of four or more people. You can argue that the bureaucracy is still bloated and government too big (although for those of us in it, we’re accutely aware of hiring freezes and budget reductions that have left us with a lot fewer people to do the same work), but the question of essential/nonessential has nothing to do with it.

It’s also just rude. Most of us made a deliberate decision to go into federal service because we want to serve the country, and it’s just unhelpful to imply that what we do must not be very important.

2) “You’ll get backpay anyway.”

There is precedent for the people who were furloughed to get backpay, as they have received it after previous shutdowns, but it requires a separate authorization from Congress. Without getting too much into politics, the current Congress isn’t seeming too generous to me, and I don’t know that they’ll have an appetite for giving backpay to a bunch of federal employees who didn’t work during the shutdown.

3) “Most government workers don’t really do that much/are overpaid anyway.”

OK, we’ve all heard this and we know it’s a popular perception. I can’t speak for all of the bureaucracy, but I’m flabbergasted by this idea that I don’t do very much and would love to get one of those jobs where that’s true. I’ve put in 60-hour weeks, weekends, holidays, shift work more times than I care to remember, have deployed as a civilian to combat zones, and been on call through crisis after crisis. This is the same for almost everyone else I know. And we’ve been under hiring freezes and budget constraints, so we generally have fewer people to do the same amount of work.

As for the overpaid part, again I can’t speak for the entire bureaucracy. I’m pretty happy with my salary. I could probably make more in the private sector but I’m not in this for the money. But things have been tougher — we haven’t had cost-of-living adjustments in three years, we’ve already dealt with a round of furloughs this year due to the sequester, and there are talks of reductions in force in the coming years if the sequester remains. There’s a lot more uncertainty than there used to be, and the pay hasn’t kept up in the last few years to account for it.

4) “It’s all the fault of [name a political party/official]!”

Especially don’t say this if the person you’re talking to is of the opposite political persuasion. But generally, I think many of us are feeling like political pawns right now, and your political tirade probably isn’t going to help us feel better. I’m pretty smart – I can do my own analysis of the situation and why it’s happening, and I’d prefer that people not use my situation as an opportunity to explain to me what party they think is the problem. Of course some people may enjoy discussing it, but handle with care.

5) “Welcome to what the rest of the country has been going through for the last several years.”

I understand this, and in many ways it’s true. The rest of the country has faced layoffs, uncertainty, lack of pay raises, general uncertainty that we’re largely insulated from in the government. I can, for the most part, generally expect that if I do good work and don’t create problems, I will probably continue to have a job, and that’s more than a lot of people can say. But a lot of that certainty is gone now – as I mentioned above, there have been other furloughs this year, and prospects of reductions in force in the coming years if the sequester remains. There have also been hiring freezes, which mean opportunities for promotion and lateral moves have diminished, so many people just feel stuck with few options.

It’s also just not a helpful statement. Yes, things could always be worse. There are always people in worse situations. But that doesn’t ease our burden right now – this hurts financially and emotionally, and the uncertainty is absolutely exhausting. I have no idea when I’ll see a paycheck again, and I can’t even look for other work in the meantime. So please try not to rub salt in our wounds – we’re just trying to get through it.

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