Hearing weighs causes of, solutions to low morale in federal workforce

Wednesday - 5/7/2014, 1:35pm EDT

A lot of people on Capitol Hill talk about how they want an effective and efficient government. Yet, many of those same people fail to support the individuals who are in the best position to bring about that effectiveness and efficiency.

"Instead of investing in new initiatives that allow agencies to better recruit, cultivate and retain a quality and experienced federal workforce, it seems that more and more politicians use these folks as a punching bag," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce (FPFW).

Tester's subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on federal morale entitled A More Efficient and Effective Government: Cultivating the Federal Workforce.

In his opening statement, Tester ticked off a laundry list of hardships federal workers have endured in recent years, from pay and hiring freezes to cuts in training and travel budgets. It all culminated in the sequester budget cuts that led to furloughs and a government shutdown.

"For some folks, sequestration and the shutdown were about scoring political points," he said. "For others, they were the opportunity to shake their heads at the state of affairs here in Washington, D.C. For federal workers, sequestration and shutdown kept them from working and threatened their livelihood with something as equally as damaging. It implied that their work isn't essential. Guess what? We all know that isn't true."

Employee groups call for end to sequester

J. David Cox, president of the American Federal of Government Employees (AFGE), said one of the reasons federal workers' morale is so low is "because their salaries are a convenient ATM for budget agreements."

Cox criticized recent increases in federal pension contributions.

The 2014 budget deal increased the amount newly hired employees must contribute to their pensions by 1.3 percent. Overall, employees hired after Dec. 31, 2013, are required to contribute 4.4 percent of their salary toward their pensions.

Previously, as part of the payroll tax extension approved by Congress in February 2012, lawmakers approved legislation requiring federal employees hired in 2013 to contribute a total of 3.1 percent of their salaries to their defined-benefit pensions.

Federal workers who were on the job prior to the start of this year contribute 0.8 percent toward their pensions under the Federal Employees Retirement Systems (FERS).

Colleen M. Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) told the committee another reason employee morale is so low is that many agencies don't have enough people to do the job at hand, which increases the workload and adds stress to existing employees.

"Employees leave and no one is hired to replace them," she said. "Although the recently passed bipartisan budget act changed the amount of 2014 and 2015 funding, cuts will still be needed in the years of 2016 to 2021 due to the sequester funding levels in place under the budget control act. Unless the sequester is ended, it's going to have a crushing impact on jobs and economic growth and it will cripple the ability of the government to deliver services to the American public."

Kelley called on Congress to end the sequester.

"If Congress wants an efficient and effective government, and I say 'if,' then it needs to end the sequester and to provide resources for adequate personnel and training," she said.

Beyond these cuts to agency budgets, Kelley added, federal employees, themselves have also seen their overall compensation diminish by $138 billion in order to reduce the deficit.

"They endured the three-year pay freeze, pay reductions due to unpaid furloughs and new hires have seen increases in their pension contributions," she said. "Despite that disproportionate burden, the 2015 budget that was passed by the House of Representatives calls for an additional $125 billion more in cuts to federal employees."

OPM helping agencies apply lessons of Employee Viewpoint Survey

The point of the hearing was not just to gauge the level of federal employee morale, but also to identify solutions that agencies could use with the resources they have available. To that end, representatives from agencies that scored high on the 2013 Best Places to Work rankings provided testimony.

Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, referenced the results of the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS), which the Partnership for Public Service uses as the basis for the rankings.

"The 2013 EVS governmentwide results reveal that more than 80 percent of the federal employees who responded like the work they do and understand how their work relates to their agency's goals and priorities," Acrhuleta said. "However, there were decreases in all four human capital indices as well as in employee engagement and global satisfaction."