The Real State Of The Union

As the captain gave his State Of The Union address, he was standing on an unsteady deck.

I had the opportunity this week to speak with a federal employee recently retired after 40 years with the U.S. government.

Federal workers’ morale is not good, he said. For a long time the government has pursued a policy of converting federal employee positions to contract positions. I presume the goal is to save money and to relieve government of responsibility for employees, and it’s working.

Federal employees idled during the month-long government shutdown will receive back pay, the retiree explained. Contract employees who work alongside federal employees in the same buildings will NOT be paid.

The numbers:

Approximately 800,000 federal employees will be paid; approximately 1 million contract federal workers will not be paid.

You might say it’s a dirty little secret. But it’s not a well-kept secret. I read the same information in a newspaper. However, most Americans are unaware that 1 million workers will not be paid. Or they simply don’t care.

The U.S. is fighting wars (sometimes secret wars) with mercenaries paid by private contractors, instead of soldiers paid by the U.S. Army. And the civilian government is staffed by contract workers, instead of official federal employees.

Morale is horrible among both official employees and their contract fellow workers, said the long-time employee. Contract workers are leaving the government in droves, he said. Departing workers are taking years of experience and irreplaceable skills with them, said another man at the table. The government is being weakened, and possibly wrecked.

I suppressed the image of rats leaving a sinking ship. It’s not the right image.

I summoned a vision of contract sailors, classified as “non-essential” and deemed not worth paying. They are disembarking from a stricken ship, with unseen damage below the waterline. A skeleton crew remains aboard.

Sailors are manning the lifeboats in orderly fashion. Meanwhile, a proud and inattentive captain is on deck reading a speech. Assembled officers applaud dutifully. The captain is unaware that the deck beneath his feet is unsteady and the ship is listing.

sunset ship boat sea

Photo by Pixabay on

— John Hayden


16 thoughts on “The Real State Of The Union

  1. I really liked your introductory and closing imagery of the captain. Sad times when compared to before, when working for the federal government was some we aspired to do.


  2. There is a common saying in the software industry, “that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

    The primary reason for replacing civil service positions with contract workers IS so that the contract workers can be fired, laid-off and furloughed at the discretion of the agency. Something that you cannot do to a civil service employee. Note carefully what I wrote concerning furloughs, “discretion of the agency” not government shutdown. As for shutdowns, every contract specifies that as a provision.

    But let’s get a little perspective here. There are 14.5 million Americans working for temp agencies. most of whom work from day to day with the understanding that they can be out of work with no notice whatsoever – permanently.

    Keep in mind that many of these federal contractors are highly paid technical consultants with built-in “bench-time” pay.

    I once had to explain to a civil service software engineer who was making $100K/year (typical salary) why the contractor in the next cube was billing out at $160/hr. I explained that her cost to the agency was $150K/year including salary, payroll costs and benefits and that a third of the contractors pay went to marketing, benefits and support costs. But most important of all was that the remaining difference went to cover the time when he was not working.

    Granted, there are federal contractors who are not making much money. These are maintenance, cafeteria and other menial positions – and one has to feel for them – but not anymore than the millions of temp staffers who get let go, or the coal miners, or the workers whose jobs have been outsourced and let us not forget the millions, upon millions, upon million, upon millions of American workers who have been put out of work or have had their earning power devastated because of illegal immigration


    • You are so right about the American workforce. What happens in the government happens even larger in the private sector.

      Are we happy with America as an economic caste system? We have the wealthy, the merely rich, the affluent, the middle class, the working class that’s just getting by, the working poor, and finally, the destitute.

      And then, in both government and the private sector, as you correctly point out, the workforce is starkly divided into separate and unequal parts. Those with full employment status, including the healthcare, vacation, and retirement benefits that go with it. And working side-by-side with them, but below, is the CONTINGENT workforce. Temporary and with no protection or security whatsoever. As you point out, these Contract workers may be high-pay or low-pay, Depending on their skills and on supply and demand.

      There seems to be a misconception that most government employees are extremely well paid. And some are well paid, it is true. Is that wrong? They are well-paid because they are well educated and highly skilled, don’t you think.

      But in Government at all levels, federal state and local, the vast majority of the workforce has been in the middle or at the lower end. The bureaucracy has always been heavily weighted toward clerical work, by the very nature of government. Lots of paper to be processed. And lots of low paid customer service work. Every time a citizen comes in contact with the government, there is the equivalent of customer service to be provided. Usually those are low paid jobs.

      There’s been much change in recent decades with the advance of computerization. But the more things change, the more they remain the same. The paperless office has not arrived. Just ask anyone who works in an office. More paper than ever. And The majority of workers still fall in the middle class or below, especially considering the high cost of living in the D.C. area.

      And those contract workers? A disproportionate number of the jobs contracted out are at the unskilled and lower-psid, as you indicated. Many of those 1 million government workers who will not receive their back pay are those who can least afford it. Not much surprise there. Isn’t that the way it always works? Yes, those contract government workers are the ones who clean the offices, maintain the buildings, staff the cafeterias, and stand guard duty. They won’t receive back pay. Let them eat cake, right?


      • While one tier of government contractors is extremely well paid, another is not. Why focus on one without mentioning the other?

        Let’s not forget that Loudoun and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, and Howard County in nearby Maryland, are the 3 most affluent counties in the United States in terms of median household incomes.

        That says something. Sure, not everyone there is employed directly by government or government contractors but enough are to make them mind-bogglingly affluent.

        But let’s talk about journalism. Your about page speaks to being an editor and journalist. I admire that. In fact, I am a little jealous. It is a noble profession but has become ennoble in the public eye over the last half century. There is plenty of blame to go around for this- but let me suggest one cause, journalists have sacrificed reporting for the STORY and all too often the narrative has an ideological and political bent – and readers pick up on that immediately and at least half of them are turned off.

        Take the case of government workers furloughed due to a shutdown. Some are hurt, some are merely inconvenienced and others get to take the kids out of school and spend a few weeks in Hawaii.

        All three realities exist. Not one reality cancels out the other.

        Why are we getting absolutely no coverage that puts into perspective how many workers are in each category?

        But beyond that, where is the perspective of government workers hurt or inconvenienced by a shut-down put into the context of workers who do not work for government?

        You ended your reply by saying “Let them eat cake, right?” That was a little harsh, maybe even rude.

        Try this, let them eat the same thing as everyone else or lets put it more charitably, when they eat what everyone else is eating, let’s not call them special.


  3. For a local perspective on the clash that brought about the government shutdown read Minnesota Public Radio: 25 years ago, Hormel strike changed Austin, industry

    The story was written in 2010, so it is now 34 years since the strike and the effects are still hard felt. Brothers refuse to talk brothers, parents will not talk to children, neighbors still pit themselves against neighbors. It was bitter beyond belief.

    Kudos to MPR for addressing the core of the issue which was the undermining of wages due to (illegal) immigration from Mexico. They studiously avoided the mention of the term illegal but that is what it was.

    Yet the town has moved on in many ways sconce then, successive waves of immigrates has passed through after the Mexicans moved to light industry in Wisconsin, then came the Guatemalans who in turn moved on, followed by immigrants from South Sudan and now Myrammar (Burma). You will not find too many illegals working in Austin today. Hormel is careful about that. Now they work for contract houses in Iowa and out west – but the effect is much the same.

    As for the legal immigrants in town, we all get along pretty well – because they came here legally.

    Most everyone here – and around the Midwest understands what people in Washington DC do not understand which is the purpose of government is to protect the interests of the governed.


    • “What people in Washington do not understand . . .”

      I think you may underestimate the people who work for our federal, state, and local governments. They are not all perfect, but by and large, I believe they understand their duty. I’m sure you don’t blame the individual border patrol agents and customs agents for purposely allowing illegal immigration? I personally do not think that they turned their backs on their duty and chose to allow illegal immigration. So, on whom do you blame illegal immigration?

      From the beginning, the American economy has been based on cheap labor. A great number of the earliest immigrants to America were African slaves and English indentured servants. Slavery and indentured are history. But the search for cheap labor always continues. Most of the immigrants from Europe during the 19th century were the poorest of the poor. Based on that history, who do you think made the decision to allow, even encourage, illegal immigration? Could it possibly have been government workers? I submit to you that the decision was made at a higher pay scale. A much higher pay scale.

      Big business, and the wealthy owners of big business, wanted cheap labor. As always. They were the ones who wanted immigration, whether it be legal or illegal. They made the decision. I will leave it to you to imagine how they pulled the strings to implement their decision.


      • I understand civil service quite well. I worked in city, county and state government for three decades and have worked with federal agencies extensively.

        When I speak of “Washington DC”, I speak of the decision makers, the congress and the administration (toss in a few think tanks and K street lobbyists as well).

        But yes, business has always pushed for mass immigration to depress the price of labor.

        But that is only half the story.

        If you know your labor history, you will know that mass immigration was all but shut down in the 1920’s, which is directly attributable to both the growing influence of labor and the emergence of strong labor unions in the mid-century.

        Labor has always opposed mass immigration and illegal immigration. It is why Democrats once supported immigration enforcement and quite literally, supported the wall, funding 104 miles of barriers across the 140 miles of the California border with Mexico.

        What changed?

        The Democratic Party is no longer the party of labor. It is the party of identity politics and has tied its future to demographics. It has become the interest of the party to flood the country with as many immigrants as possible to swing political power. It is a strategy that is working.

        But ultimately, it is not a strategy that will work for the country. Controlled immigration that invites educated, talented people, along with a controlled number of actual refugees is a sustainable policy.

        Inviting mostly uneducated, unskilled people into a welfare state that is $17 trillion in debt on a federal level and several trillion in additional debt on the state and local level, not to count unfunded liabilities… suicide.

        Europe is facing the same problem, it is why England is in Brexit, the yellow vest march in Paris, Italy is at loggerheads with the EU, everyone is mad at Hungary and Poland and Angela Merkl is retiring.


  4. Or in the Hormel example, did the American workers on the floor decide to hire illegal immigrants? Or did the company and its owners decide to hire illegal immigrants?

    Interesting question – but to understand it, you must first ask who owns Hormel?

    It is a public company, so therefore logically, one must acknowledge that it is the share holders. But then who owns stock? Mostly, it is institutional investors and employees.

    But guess what?

    One quarter, that’s 25% of all stock is owned by (drum-roll please) pension funds and who are the largest pension funds? Uh…………….government workers.

    So when you start talking about inequities, and the rich and the poor, keep in mind that after Jeff Bezos divorce, my pension fund will have more money than him. CALPERS, the California pension fund has about $306 billion in assets.

    That’s a lot of SPAM and they are rather harsh about insuring a high rate of return.


  5. Almost Iowa, I agree with you about the sorry state of journalism, and that the American labor movement opposes illegal immigration. Regarding journalism: The newspaper industry has collapsed. And what we get from cable TV and the Internet is hardly worthy to be called journalism.

    Regarding labor and the Democratic Party: What changed? What changed is that labor unions, like newspapers, are just about dead in this country, so there is not much remaining to counterbalance corporate power. Like you, I am quite disappointed in the Democratic Party, and the way it has responded to the shutdown. I’m afraid that Speaker Pelosi is not focused on what is best for America, but seems to be playing for political advantage. I had expected better from Pelosi, to be honest.

    Finally, let me answer your question about why I focus on the average and low-paid federal workers, rather than the more well-paid workers. Every writer chooses what to write about. We simply can’t write EVERYTHING. We have to limit our subject. We must constantly choose what to put in and what to leave out. It boils down to a value judgment.

    I acknowledge that there are many well-paid government workers. But they are not my subject because they are not the ones hurt by a shutdown. Low-paid workers are the ones being hurt. And that is especially true for those who will not receive their back pay. Losing an entire month of pay is a financial disaster for a worker who is just scraping by to begin with.

    I am concerned about the poor. It is simply my value judgment. I choose to write about those who are hurting. Others may choose to write about the rich.


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