A Roller Coaster for Federal Employees

My fellow Social Security Administration employees and other federal employees in California feel as if we are on a roller coaster that will not stop.  For the last several weeks, we have faced the threat of a possible federal government shutdown — and if Congress fails to come to a budget compromise by the end of this week, that shutdown would effectively begin at midnight tonight. At the same time, we’re holding on to the hope that Congress could pass a continuing resolution that would provide funding for one week, two weeks or even three weeks of work.  We almost feel as if we are dead women and men walking, waiting for some last-minute reprieve or commutation of our employment “sentence.”

This week has literally been one of the longest weeks I can remember. We all wanted to believe that Congress will act to prevent a total government shutdown, but as the week went on, we began to feel that this was something different.  All of the employees in my agency, the Social Security Administration, received a message from our Commissioner, telling us that, should there be a shutdown, the employees in field offices (such as the one in which I work in East Oakland) will have ‘limited staff’ and provide ‘limited services.’ We still don’t know that that really means for us and those who depend on us.

Back in 1995, when we were furloughed twice as a result of a Gingrich/Clinton dust up, all of us at the SSA were told to go home because we were considered ‘non-essential.’ Not only were we the workers severely affected,  all of the seniors and disabled individuals who rely on the vital services we provide were left in a lurch. A few days later, after a number of us (including myself) brought this issue to the press, I and my fellow employees throughout the country received calls from management telling us that we were now ‘essential,’ and to go back to work, even though there was no money to pay us (eventually we were paid).

Now, with this new threat of a shutdown seeming more and more likely to become reality, the federal government did what it often does — changed the nomenclature. Instead of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’, employees would either be ‘excepted’ or ‘non-excepted’ if they were to work, and they would receive no guarantee that they would be paid.  Our national union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has met with Attorney General Eric Holder and we’re ready to go to court and argue that requiring employees to work with no expectation of being paid is a violation of the l3th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

To fight this latest threat of a government shutdown, AFGE members in Social Security field offices held informational pickets at SSA offices in Redding, Sacramento, Fresno Downtown, Fresno West, Richmond and my own office of East Oakland.  As I held my picket sign that said “Government workers are people too” and distributed material to the public, I told members of the press my views on what was happening. Watch the interview here.

I quoted Yogi Berra and said the government shutdown felt like “déjà vu all over again” compared to the last incident in 1995, but I also noted that there are differences.  In l995, there was no Tea Party, and there was not the same kind of jubilation at the prospect of shutting down government that we’re seeing today.  We the workers have a crucial role to play in the economy, and at a time when the economy is striving to recover, a government shutdown would be devastating.

And even if we avert a shutdown, our livelihoods are still at risk. If the current budget passed by the House is approved by the Senate and signed by the President, Social Security’s administrative budget would be cut greatly, resulting in my fellow employees being furloughed for up to 30 days before the end of the fiscal year (which ends September 30).

So while this week was a trying week and a week when I found myself marching twice (once at a ‘We Are One’ rally in downtown Oakland, and again on April 6 at my own office’s entrance), I know that I will be still marching with my fellow federal workers to ensure that we get adequate funding to receive the pay and benefits we are due, and to serve the public we respect and admire.