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Why The Federal Workforce Morale Is At An All-Time Low


The first year of the Trump administration has been tough for many federal workers. Many agencies froze hiring. And last week's government shutdown got people wondering, at least briefly, when their next paycheck would arrive. That's why, ahead of President Trump's State of the Union address, some federal employees are dreading the possible announcement of a plan to reorganize the government. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: For nearly 40 years, J. David Cox has worked in and around the federal government. And right now, he says...

J DAVID COX: Federal employee morale is the lowest that I have ever seen it.

NAYLOR: Cox is president of the largest federal workers' union, the American Federation of Government Employees. He says agencies are short-staffed. The border patrol, he says, is down 2,000 employees - the VA, nearly 50,000 short. Now with the president expected to call for a sweeping reorganization of the federal government in the coming weeks, along with a possible pay freeze, Cox says workers are worried.

COX: We are concerned. We are concerned because reorganizations means let's figure out a way to cut and do more with less or to do away with services that the American people want.

NAYLOR: Federal workers provide services most people would consider essential - processing Social Security and veterans' benefits, protecting the border, directing air traffic and administering grants. The federal civilian workforce is roughly the same size it was during the Reagan administration - a little over 2 million. But it's serving a population that's grown by nearly 100 million people. At some agencies, that means an overwhelming workload. At the VA, recent legislation aimed at speeding up claims processing means workers like Keena Smith, who works at the VA benefits processing office in St. Louis, are feeling the strain.

KEENA SMITH: I'm happy to go to work because I love what I do. But the pressure that's put on us makes it stressful because we've become a production environment. It's all about the numbers.

NAYLOR: And it's not just rank-and-file employees feeling the crunch. Agencies are also missing some key upper-level political appointees. Trump has yet to formally nominate someone to head the Internal Revenue Service, heading into tax season, or the Census Bureau. There is no ambassador yet to South Korea or director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, says more than 200 senior positions remain unfilled one year into the president's term. Stier says imagine it's a football game.

MAX STIER: We're into the second quarter. And, you know, there are large parts of the offensive line and the rest of the team not there on the field.

NAYLOR: Trump has questioned the need for many of the vacant federal jobs and, referring to foreign policy openings, declared he is the only one that matters. Early last year, Trump signed an executive action freezing the number of federal employees for the first three months of his administration and may be considering including a longer-term freeze. But Stier says freezes eliminate flexibility. Take government IT workers.

STIER: There are five times as many IT workers in the federal government over the age of 60 as under the age of 30. That's not what you want to freeze in place. We need to be hiring, you know, cutting-edge, young IT workers. You don't freeze your IT workforce to get there.

NAYLOR: Robert Shea is a former official at the White House budget office in the George W. Bush administration. He says the recent government shutdown and hiring freeze have left federal workers feeling harried, which he says is counterproductive.

ROBERT SHEA: The happier they are at their job, the better work they're going to do for the American people.

NAYLOR: Shea calls this a period of disruption. He says it's an opportunity for the Trump administration to figure out how to deliver services more efficiently and effectively. That includes, Shea says, keeping the federal workforce happy. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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