WASHINGTON -- Working for the federal government is supposed to be the most stable gig in America, immune to the uncertainties of private-sector business. But between sequestration-induced furloughs and now a government shutdown, Steve Hopkins is wondering what's so enticing about civil service these days.
"We went through a furlough, a very long term of uncertainty," Hopkins, an Environmental Protection Agency employee of 25 years, said at the Capitol Wednesday. "You're not even recovered from that and you're coming into another era of uncertainty [with the shutdown]. And that promises to be followed by another era of uncertainty with the debt ceiling.
"You brought me here to do a job -- if you want it done, let's do it," Hopkins went on. "If you don't want it done, say so and send us home."
Small-government conservatives have long railed against what they see as the high compensation and coziness of the federal workforce. Aided by a crummy economy and the constant budget fights, they've succeeded in making employment with the federal government share some of the same anxieties as the private sector. Cost-of-living wage bumps have been frozen for years, unpaid furloughs have been enforced, and now the shutdown has effectively locked an estimated 800,000 workers out of their jobs.
Democrats, typically seen as allies of federal employees, have played their own role in this squeeze, calling for mutual sacrifice at a time of high unemployment and budget squabbles. In 2010, President Barack Obama proposed a two-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for most civilian employees, later asking Congress for a raise of 0.5 percent and then 1 percent. (No such raise has yet materialized.)
Through its proposed budget, the White House also supports hiking federal workers' share of pension contributions, as well as switching to a less generous inflation index, known as chained CPI, for retirement cost-of-living adjustments. The moves were strongly denounced by federal employee unions, which claim the workforce has given up enough.
At a time when almost every politician wants to look serious about deficit reduction, federal workers have become what Obama himself called a Washington "punching bag." Many government employees have told HuffPost that they're considering leaving civil service altogether. Some have already started job searches.
"It's hard to stand up for certain communities, and unfortunately the federal constituency is one of them," said Jessica Klement, legislative director at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which lobbies for pay and benefits. "Anything seen as being supportive of the federal worker is not going to fly" in the current political environment.
Earlier this year, a solid 43 Democrats in the House joined Republicans in voting to override Obama's executive order for the 0.5 percent pay raise. It was a vote that stayed with Alex Bastani, an employee of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and president of his union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12.
"It's just indefensible," Bastani said. "Probably a majority [of Democrats] in the House and the Senate are still with us, but there's a solid constituency who aren't."
Sympathy for federal employees runs high at the moment, with Americans widely disgusted by the government shutdown. Many Democrats as well as Republicans have called it an injustice to furloughed employees, who don't know if Congress will decide to retroactively pay them for the time they miss on the job. Lawmakers did pass legislation granting federal employees back pay after the shutdown of 1995 and 1996, but several Senate Republicans told HuffPost Tuesday that they weren't sure they would support such a bill this time around, citing budget woes.
On Wednesday, four Democratic senators -- Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) -- joined a group of furloughed workers at a press conference in the Capitol to call on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to end the shutdown with a vote on a clean continuing resolution.
Notably, all but Boxer represent either Maryland or Virginia, states where a disproportionate number of federal employees and defense contractors live.
Carter Kimsey, a program manager at the National Science Foundation, told HuffPost that sequestration and the shutdown were "undercutting the scientific enterprise," not to mention making government work less desirable.
"I think with so much unemployment, and so much economic disaster in the country, that anyone who has a job is resented. And it's understandable," Kimsey said. "But we know that the American people want government services. As a federal worker, it's hard for me to understand -- you can't have the services without the workers." Kimsey said Congress is "not valuing people's labor."
"The feeling, too," she added, "is that the White House could be more supportive."
Speaking at the press conference, Warner said the treatment of federal employees over the past few months would dissuade talented people from starting a career in government. He called on Congress to grant furloughed workers back pay once the shutdown is resolved, saying they'd already done long-term "damage" to the very idea of public service.
"We're asking our federal workforce to do more with less. That's going to continue," Warner said. "What a morale killer."