I’ve been a federal employee for more than 16 years. I’ve been able to support my family, raise my son, and get a master’s degree because I’ve worked for the federal judiciary. Yet I’ve come to realize that it’s time that I seek employment in the private sector.
The federal government shutdown has been a final straw more than a wake-up call in my decision to explore the nongovernment job market. I’ve been concerned about the fact that the U.S. government hasn’t passed a full fiscal-year budget since I’ve been a federal employee, which is sadly not surprising given Congress’ woeful track record in these endeavors. Accordingly, our government has been subsisting off of continuing resolutions since then, with government shutdowns sprinkled in between to remind us of its budgetary incompetence.
As a long-term employee of the judicial arm of the federal government, I’ve luckily never been furloughed and until this year never had to seriously consider the possibility of not receiving a paycheck for my work. Fortunately, that financial fear has been somewhat alleviated with President Donald Trump’s signing a bill that requires some 800,000 federal workers to receive back pay once the partial shutdown ends.
However, knowing each year that there is a distinct possibility that I could be furloughed has been disconcerting. Combine that with hearing the worry in the voices of family and friends who have been furloughed or on the cusp of being furloughed, and those whose work hours might be cut due to the loss of federal workers as customers, has caused me to question how “good” is a government job, given the U.S. government’s current fiscal climate and its ongoing inability, if not outright refusal, to balance its own checkbook.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I’d always heard from my family and elders how a government job was a good job, meaning that you could support your family, not worry about your next paycheck, and, most important, work there until you retired. Historically and before the Great Recession, working for the government has helped many Americans, especially African Americans, attain working- or middle-class status. I’ve had family members who’ve worked for local, state, and federal governments, such as Children and Family Services, PennDot, the Postal Service, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the FBI. When I fully joined the workforce after graduating from college, my goal wasn’t to find a government position, but I knew that if I did, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I’ve always thought that — until recently.
There are good things about being a federal employee, such as the ability to have work-life balance and the job stability. Most government employees value those benefits tremendously, which is why they remain in the public sector for decades. However, the trade-offs are that promotions are limited due to high tenure and low staff turnover, which can lead to professional stagnation, and bonuses and salary increases for a job well done are intermittent and not as large as one would hope or expect. Sometimes the trade-offs can be vexing, but knowing you have reliable employment that allows you to take care of your family can make those negatives easier to swallow.
We are in the midst of the longest shutdown in U.S. history. If the shutdown isn’t resolved by Friday, it’s more than likely that I will be officially furloughed. Throughout this experience, I’ve often asked myself: If job stability is the one thing that working for the federal government can no longer guarantee, then why am I still working for it?
It’s time that I find out.