Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
The government shutdown created two separate classes of federal workers: “exempt” and “non-exempt.” Designations are based on a variety of criteria that vary between and even within agencies. We talk with Howard Ross and Joe Davidson about the dynamics of management choices that assign value — real or perceived — in the workplace.
- Joe Davidson Columnist, the Federal Diary, for the Washington Post
- Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Howard Ross is here. A week ago, federal workers near and far went to their offices and reported to their duty stations to do one of two things. Try to get down to business as usual, amidst a shutdown that makes that a near impossibility, or to set up out of office replies. Bring home their plants and try to establish a new normal where uncertainty is routine.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOne where questions are swirling about the practical, whether or not they'll get paid. And the existential, whether or not their mission is essential. Here to talk about how the shutdown is playing out in and around offices around town is Howard Ross, Diversity Consultant and Principal at Cook Ross. He is the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Howard, welcome to our new home.
MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo. Congratulations. It's great looking here.
NNAMDIThank you very much. It's a lot more room for you to operate in. Joining us from studios at the Washington Post is Joe Davidson. He's a columnist for the Washington Post. He covers the Federal Workforce for the Federal Diary. Joe Davidson, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOE DAVIDSONThank you, Kojo. I'm anxious to see your new digs. Maybe I can get there next time.
NNAMDIHopefully. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have comments or questions. If you work for the federal government, or a contractor and have been deemed non essential, how do you feel about that designation? 800-433-8850. Joe, based on reports we are hearing, the personnel decisions, in some cases at least, seem a bit arbitrary. How are decisions made about who keeps working and who goes home?
DAVIDSONWell, that's a very interesting question, because many times we hear federal employees referred to as essential and non essential. That's really an outmoded term now that many federal employees find offensive for reasons you might easily imagine, if you were among the non essential group. So now the language is exempted, excepted or not excepted. And that basically means excepted from the laws determining who needs to come into work and who doesn't.
DAVIDSONAnd that can get a bit complicated, can vary from agency to agency. We've seen, just over the weekend that the Defense Department is now recalling most of its employees who had been furloughed to begin with. But, basically it does have to do with certain funding streams. If you're not funded by direct appropriations from the federal treasury, appropriations passed by Congress, then you can keep working. And there are a number of federal employees, hundreds of thousands, in fact, in that category.
DAVIDSONAnd now Defense Department people can work, too. Most of them.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. He's recalling, as you said, most of the employees, including people whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members. Howard Ross, if you were advising the managers of these agencies, how would you recommend these decisions be made?
ROSSWell, it's very difficult, you know, and as Joe was saying, you know, there's also the stigma that gets attached to, you know, somebody calls you non-essential and you think about this -- there's, at the moment, how that impacts people. But, of course, there's the long term impact of that, because once everybody comes back to work, assuming we ever come out to a resolution of this, then, you know, you remember that you were the one who they called non-essential, and you were the one to call essential.
ROSSOne of the things that is really challenging, of course, is that so much of this is subjective, and it's determined by the moment of time. It's determined by how connected a person is to the leader who makes these decisions, whether there's a personal connection or a particular need on the leader's part for that particular person and what they offer relative to what the leader's responsible for. And it's very difficult to come up with any kind of objective determinant for most of these things.
ROSSAnd so it's rife with the possibility for people to feel like they've been arbitrarily placed on one list versus another.
NNAMDIAs Joe pointed out, many officials have switched to exempt or non-exempt or excepted and non-excepted. Whatever the phrasing, even if you rationally understand this is not a personal judgment on you, what kind of psychological effect does a designation like that have, Howard?
ROSSWell, I mean, if you think about any one of us in our place of work, and we know that we're at different levels of the organization, but we wanna feel like we're important, and the role that we play has an impact on what it is that our organization does. And we know from work force engagement studies that have been done for years and years that how much people feel connected to the essence of what the organization is doing, whether you're somebody who's at a senior level or whether you're somebody who cleans up the office at the end of the day.
ROSSTo the degree that you are helped to understand how what you do really contributes to the overall well-being, the overall success of the organization, that you feel better about yourself and you also perform better at work. So, anytime that you begin to codify people and separate them into different categories, this essential and non-essential, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in sort of an in-group, out-group, potentially, conversation, which can have long term impact. Now, there are some exceptions to this, and that is there are some people who know very well that what they're doing is important work, but they happen to be in a particular classification in the government, let's say.
ROSSYou know, you're somebody at a high level in a particular department. You know that you're important, but you also know that that whole department, for one reason or another, has been seen as non-essential. Then it becomes less personal. And in that case, especially after over the weekend, they determined that you're gonna get your money back, you get a free vacation. I mean, for some people, it might be that, I'm fine with being a non-essential if it means that I can have some time off and I'm gonna get my back pay.
ROSSBut, for the most part, it's not a designation most of us would want.
NNAMDIWhat about the federal employees you've been talking to , Joe Davidson? Howard made the distinction between when a department has been determined as non-essential as to when individuals in a department have to fall into one or the other category.
DAVIDSONWell, I think either way this non-essential label is harmful. And I think it's inaccurate in many ways. I mean, certainly, if you can argue that either a department, an agency, an office within a department or any individuals are non-essential, then it clearly raises the question, then why do we need them at any time? And so I think that, and it does individual harm, I think, to those workers. And one of the things that I've been impressed with since covering this beat the sense of mission on the part of federal employees.
DAVIDSONThey really do want to serve the nation, and serve the taxpayers by completing or working toward the mission of their agency, whatever it might be. And so, to put a non-essential label on them as individuals or their office, I think does great psychic harm to them, and it's basically not fair and not accurate.
NNAMDIHere is Gale in Alexandria, Virginia. Gale, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GALEI'm a federal employee. I work for D.O.D., Department of the Army and Public Affairs. And what I would say is I feel like D.O.D. succumbed to political pressure from people to reinstate all, as many as they could, of the employees of the D.O.D. employees. I think it was based upon contracting and internal pressures from the Army, you know, to keep up training and all that. And I understand why they would want to bring as many people back as they can.
GALEBut in my office, for example, we do public affairs, I do community relations. They've split the base. Those who do internal communications are being brought back, and those of us who do mostly external communication are being -- are not being brought back. Well, I haven't a communications plan in the last year that doesn't have some form of internal communications in it. And I think that it's -- I think to say that external communications are still non-essential because of the way the memo is written, kind of shows a lack of understanding of what we all do in these jobs at the D.O.D. level.
NNAMDIYou raise a couple of interesting questions that I'd like both Joe and Howard to respond to. The first of which Gale raised is the politics of all of this. And that is she implies, or I certainly infer that because this is Department of Defense and involves the Army, that there won't be a lot of objection if the Secretary of Defense brings all of his employees back. It probably won't get the same response if the Secretary of Education said they were going bring all of their employees back.
ROSSYeah, very much, and this really speaks to what I was talking about before about the subjectivity of all of this. And, you know, what the popular response out in the quote marketplace is to this, and what people feel like they can justify or get away with depending upon what the needs are. The other thing that's really important to recognize, that Gale really points to, is that a lot of times the impact of these kinds of things isn't during the period when people are actually out. It's when people come back and all of a sudden, you know, there have been things that have been let go for a period of time.
ROSSWhether it's, you know, who knows how long it's gonna be? Two weeks or three weeks. And you've gotta all of a sudden get back these huge expectations that everything will start running at the same time. You've got a three or four or five week backlog, however it is, to get caught up on things. People have to get back into the rhythm of working together. And they are, as Joe's pointing to, sometimes feeling, you know, not as good about themselves in the job as they were before because of the kinds of things that are happening.
ROSSYou know, in a way, it's a little bit analogous to what happened with a lot of organizations back in 2008, 2009 when we had to lay so -- when so many people laid people off. And organizations cut back, and then the question becomes, well, you know, for a lot of organizations, what happened back then, we laid people off, and then when it was time to start people, we said, wait, we got along without them, so maybe we can continue to get along without them.
ROSSSo, the stress level of people within the organization who are there is much higher because they're holding the ball, they're keeping it going while these people are out. And then, people come back in. It creates a lot of post shutdown issues.
NNAMDIJoe Davidson, Health and Human Services Interior, they could have -- the Secretary, you think, of those departments could simply say, hey, I want everybody to come back and it'll be okay.
DAVIDSONWell, the Defense Department had some legislation that Congress passed that allows Secretary Hagel to do this, although, I think, through a liberal interpretation of that legislation. But there was also the bill that the House passed unanimously among those voting. 407 people voted for it that will pay federal employees when they return to work, and so they won't get paid right away...
NNAMDIWhich caused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say, okay. If they're gonna pay him for coming back to work, why not just have him come back to work?
DAVIDSONExactly. That was the point I was going to raise. Now, there are additional costs. You have costs for buildings, you have costs for equipment and you do have additional costs. But, nonetheless, I think that it does raise that question and I think it is a valid question. They still wouldn't get paid for a while. The word is eventually. And, obviously, you can't take eventually to the bank. But they will get paid. I mean those who are working now like police officers, for example.
DAVIDSONThey aren't getting paid at the moment, but they will get paid eventually. So, I think it does raise a valid question. If you are gonna pay them, then why not let them work, and I think as much as we like to talk about people having a paid vacation, many of those people really do want to get back to work.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're asking the question, are you essential? Are there some people in your office who seem to have the inside track for no particular reason? How does that effect group dynamics? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet at kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. How would you point out that every day we see smaller scale actions and decisions play out in workplaces of all kinds that raise some of these same questions about who's most valuable or indispensible?
NNAMDIWhat are some of the ways that these dynamics play out?
ROSSWell, there are really hundreds of examples. Who gets invited to certain meetings? Who gets to go to certain conferences? You know, where do people sit in the organization? Who gets the parking space or the, you know, certain benefits paid for? You know, we are making these kinds of decisions constantly, and people -- you know, that's mischief for the mind, let's say. You know, people take these kinds of things and make them mean things. Sometimes realistically and sometimes not.
ROSSI remember a number of years ago, I was working with a client, doing a lot of work with their senior team. You know, coaching the CEO and working a lot with the senior team. And I came in one morning, walked past one of the V.P.'s offices, and as I walked by, he whispered, hey, come here, you know? And I said, what's going on? You know, he says, come here, come here. Close the door. So I come in, I close the door, and he says, I think I'm gonna be fired.
ROSSAnd I says, why would you -- and the CEO and I had a very close coaching relationship. Normally that would have been something he would have discussed with me, or asked, you know, some input on. And I said, why do you say that? And he says, look over there, and he points to the corner. There's a plant in the corner. And he says, you see that? They changed my plant and I read somewhere when they change your plants it means you're going to get fired.
ROSSI mean, it's amazing how intelligent people can come up with stuff like this but I can tell you, you know, a dozen stories like that where people take minor things...
NNAMDIFact that I'm intelligent does not mean I'm not also paranoid.
ROSSExactly right. I was just going to say exactly the same thing. In fact, some of our most successful people are our most insecure people. And so, you know, people do take this information. And there's one more component to this which is really important, which taps into the diversity aspect of it, Kojo. And that's that in a lot of organizations that have been really focusing the last five years, let's say, on increasing the level of diversity on their teams. They've had more affirmative hiring practices or they've just changed the organizational culture so that you have more women, more people of color coming into the organization.
ROSSWhen we begin to make determinations about essential and nonessential, that often can get overlapped with how long people have been here. And so as a result of that, when decisions are made around layoffs, around nonessential employees being furloughed or things like that, the component of people who get furloughed or who get laid off are often a higher percentage of those folks than the overall population, since sort of last in, first out can happen.
ROSSAnd so in some organizations that could be a problem too because when you look at the people who are laid off or furloughed in these kinds of circumstances, they look a lot more diverse relative to race and gender perhaps than the quote "essential" employees do.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. Are you essential? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. If you don't work for the federal government but your work place is feeling a direct effect from the shutdown, for better or worse, give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about whether or not people or jobs are essential in this government shutdown. We're talking with Joe Davis and he's a columnist for the Washington Post. He covers the federal workforce for the Federal Diary. Howard Ross is a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. He's the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance."
NNAMDIJoe Davis, for federal workers who have stayed on the job, we're hearing that some are being told they can perform tasks and not others while others are being asked to do more than their usual workload. Is being kept on the job all that it's cracked up to be?
DAVIDSONWell, I think it certainly can be confusing for them. I called a public affairs office officer at the Labor Department last week. And he had this real convoluted message about if you leave a voicemail for me, I will get back to you if it does not have to do -- or if it does have to do with an accepted activity. But if it does not have to do with an accepted activity, then I cannot get back to you until after the shutdown.
DAVIDSONI mean, it was mind boggling.
ROSSSi there a website for that, Joe, or are you going to, you know...
DAVIDSONAnd now -- and so some of them are back presumably -- or because they are accepted employees, yet everything they do is not necessarily an accepted activity. And where the line is, I don't know and I'm not sure how they would know.
NNAMDIJoe, you've been to some offices and talked to some of the people who are still working since the shutdown. What's the mood in those offices where in many cases skeleton crews are manning the ship? I saw your piece last week about the office of special counsel which has a grand total of what, three people working in it right now?
DAVIDSONThat's right. Now it's a very small office to begin with as far as federal agencies go. But I chose a small office so I could kind of get my hands around just what's happening here. And a lot of work has simply ground to a halt. In fact, when I first made the appointment to go over there, I was told on the phone, there's some people who -- there might be a couple people here who are here but you can't talk to them because talking to you is not included in their activities.
DAVIDSONSo it can get very strange. And they are -- and the agencies like that and many others too I think are simply doing the minimum necessary to stay afloat. In this case they had people who would come in and check the mail and email and communications to make sure that there wasn't anything of an emergency nature they had to deal with for example. I think though that across the board for those who are working and those who are not working, I think this has been a big hit on their morale.
DAVIDSONRemember, this comes on top of a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates, which they are still in. It ends in December. It comes on many of them -- it comes after many of them being furloughed just this summer for a number of days because of the sequester budget cuts. And now you get this which whether you're getting paid or not, whether you're working or not, it really undermines confidence in the government. And they work for the government. And so I think this is a tremendous blow to the morale for the federal workforce.
NNAMDIHoward, we got this email from Bea who says, "My understanding is the accepted label is the equivalent of keeping emergency lights on in a large building. Accepted is more about life and property. My larger concern is how the general public sees the label. Some in the public see us as unimportant because of a poorly worded label, when that is not true at all."
ROSSYeah, and that adds very much to the whole morale issue that Joe's talking about. You know, the other thing I think is important about this particular circumstance -- and Joe, you were eluding to this a little bit -- is that we've got -- it's occurring in the context of the way people are already seeing the government and what's going on in the government. And whereas in the past, things like this may have seemed like more of an anomaly. We've now been in this cycle where, you know, first it was annually, then biannually, then every quarter. And now it's gotten to the point where it feels like every week we've got another conflict that threatens to bog things up.
ROSSAnd so people have already lost an enormous amount of faith in the ability of our leaders in government to function well together and to keep the government moving. And so it's one thing if something happens and I know it's going to be an anomaly. It's something else when it feels like this is what our future is going to be. Because it feels like the government is stuck in this endless loop, this doom loop of repeating these kinds of behaviors over and over again. So it breeds a much deeper level of insecurity than when we think it's a very select kind of a circumstance.
NNAMDIHere's Timothy in Baltimore, Md. Timothy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMOTHYHi, Kojo. I just wanted to approach this from a slightly different perspective. I feel bad for the people who aren't working because they're not being paid but I'm essential personnel at the job that I have. I've been essential personnel for ten years. And for ten years I've been forced to go into work if there's bad weather, you know, if there's any kind of emergency where the other 95 percent of the people I work with, they're allowed to stay home getting paid.
TIMOTHYI've never heard those people cry or complain when I'm stuck at work snowed in a building for four days. And so I'm really finding it hard to empathize -- to be honest, I'm gagging a little bit hearing about all these people's feelings are hurt. Oh, they feel so bad about themselves. They don't feel bad about themselves when they're allowed to go home and get paid and sit at home and watch television while I'm stuck at work. So there is two sides to that. And, you know, hopefully your guests realize that.
NNAMDIWell, I'd like you to listen as I put this by way of a question to Joe Davidson. Joe Davidson, in addition to the point that Timothy made that he is essential and has to work all the time, he doesn't seem to get a lot of empathy from his fellow allegedly nonessential workers. One of our callers last week -- and we got this post from Kevin on our website -- "One of your callers last week claimed that she knew federal employees who were asked if they wanted to be essential or nonessential and they opted for the latter category, nonessential, so they could get what might amount to an extra paid vacation.
NNAMDII'd be interested to hear from your panel if that could in fact actually happen. I have assumed that it is folks higher up in the management ranks and not the employees themselves who make the essential, nonessential determination," Joe.
DAVIDSONWell, I think my experience from talking with federal employees is that they are really dedicated to their work. And that most of them would prefer to be at work doing what they were hired to do. And this is one of the things. I mean, when I came on this beat I didn't necessarily think about it one way or another, but I was impressed soon after taking over this beat by that sense of mission as I eluded to earlier.
DAVIDSONAnd so, yeah, I think there's probably some folks out there who are happy to have a paid vacation. But I don't think that that's the majority. Certainly from my experience I find folks who want to do the job that they were supposed to do without the constant interference, the constant threat of being shutdown. I mean, that's -- you know, that's what we were discussing just a minute ago. Federal employees have more or less been under a constant threat. There have always been -- some people say there've been six attempted shutdowns or close calls in the last few years. But it depends how you counted.
DAVIDSONThe point is unlike many other industries, federal employees are working in a very challenged and highly politically charged environment that I think very few people, other than federal employees, have to suffer through. And I really use the word suffer purposely because I think it does have an impact on your work life when you're always confronted with the possibility of a shutdown. And this happens all too frequently.
NNAMDITimothy is no longer on the line, Howard Ross, but I find it ironic that he is considered essential and seems to think of that as a form of hardship.
ROSSWell, I think, you know, one of the things that happens when we're parts of systems, whether they're organizations of any kind but certainly the government is such a big boat. I mean, you just -- you know, nobody feels like they can really influence -- most people do not feel like they can really influence the way the government works. And so when a system, or the structures of a system or the leaders of a system -- in this place the people who control it being the purse strings, make a decision about that system, it gets played out in terms of its impact on the individual people.
ROSSAnd because the people who are affected by that can't really have any access to -- or authority over that system, they often end up pointing fingers at each other. And you can kind of hear that in Timothy's comments. You know, this notion, well, you know, you have to work today but we don't, which in fact some people may say. And then the corresponding reaction on his part is like, I didn't you complaining then is really reflective of the very kind of morale issues that Joe and I have been talking about. Which is the system makes a decision and gets played out in the way people feel about each other.
ROSSThe other piece is, I think there's a big difference between getting a snow day off here or there and being put on furlough which is indefinite and you have no idea how long you're going to be on. I think Joe's right, and people want to make a difference in their work. I mean, I'm not saying there aren’t some people who would like to coast. And of course we know that that's true. But in our experience, that's even often the result of organizations that don't have people feel valued.
ROSSAnd so when we feel like we're just a cog in a machine as opposed to an essential part of the system, as opposed to somebody who really makes a contribution, it's easy for us to become quit-and-stays. You know, the kind of people that just sort of come to work because they have to but really aren't particularly passionately committed.
NNAMDIHere now is Chinoo (sp?) in Rockville, Md. Chinoo, your turn.
CHINOOYeah, hi Kojo. I love your show and I love the way you carry on these discussions. I'm a federal worker, a scientist who's been working for the government for 26 years. Personally it doesn't bother me that I'm furloughed. I know my work is important and I make a significant contribution. But what does bother me is that I'm being paid and not working even though I personally have no control over this, that the work will pile up and the people I serve will not be tolerant when I go back to work. They won't, you know, tolerate any further delay
CHINOOAnd then I'm concerned about the other folks who have taken a hit because of, you know, they won't be paid. These would be the restaurants that cater to federal employees and the cleaning staff who may not be paid as they are not federal employees possibly. So those are aspects of it that I truly worry about.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you shared that with us because before I get a response -- and thank you for your call, Chinoo -- I'm going to put you on hold and hear from Suzanne in Washington, D.C. who wants to address some of that. Suzanne, your turn.
SUZANNEHi. Thanks, Kojo. Yes. I was wondering about all the tens of thousands of contractors if not hundreds of thousands who I haven't read about in the media or heard in the media who work side by side with federal employees who are affected. These are formal federal jobs that were by the A76 circular under the Bush Administration and through the Obama Administration, Have now been outsource of contractor jobs.
SUZANNEThese employees won't get reimbursed. These employees are also furloughed and you never see them addressed. Can you address them?
NNAMDIJoe Davidson, A76 circular is a term you'd only hear in Washington, D.C. presumably.
DAVIDSONThank goodness for that. Yeah, in fact, I did write about this week before last about the contractor issues. And it's a mixed bag. I talked with one contractor who -- a company that is going to continue to pay their employees. They were going to put them on other tasks. They're going to have them do training. But that certainly is not the situation across the board. I think that for a number of contractors, if they -- well, first of all, many contracts are already prefunded. So it's not like they have to get paid every week from the federal government, so many of these people will continue working because they already have their money from the contract.
DAVIDSONBut for those that don't, their employees probably will be laid off unless they have an employer that can decide to put them on other tasks for the duration of the shutdown. But it really depends on the contracting company and how their contract -- how they get their funding from that contract.
NNAMDISuzanne and Chinoo, thank you both for your calls. Go ahead.
ROSSI'm sorry, Kojo. I just -- if I could jump in.
ROSSThere's a whole other level of people who are of course affected by this. I was talking to somebody this morning who's furloughed and was saying that they had to lay off their childcare worker at home, the person who comes and takes care of their children. And that now is creating challenges on that side of it as well, because the childcare worker of course expects that money to take care but they -- you know, because of the uncertainty they're trying to save money in the family because they're on furlough. And therefore I'm going to be home, I'll take care of the kids.
ROSSSo there's a huge ripple down effect that occurs as, of course, we know that most people don't even see. And I think it's really fascinating the way people were within a day, within the first 24 hours you saw some newscasters for example or a pundit say, well you know, what's the big impact? I haven't seen...
NNAMDIIt doesn't bother me.
ROSSIt's been 24 hours, you know. And, you know, it is...
DAVIDSONAnd also many vendors.
DAVIDSONI mean, there are vendors, you know, who work with -- who sell sandwiches out of these...
DAVIDSON...small shops. I mean, I was in HHS last week and they have a Dunkin Donut shop within the building and a snack shop within the building. And these are run by contractors. And the day I was there, which was the day the furlough began, the snack shop was already closed.
ROSS...and all those kinds of people.
NNAMDIJoe, let's talk about the bottom line before you go. For many federal workers, this is the second financial blow in a year if they were furloughed as a result of sequestration. What are you hearing from those workers about how they're going to make it financially?
DAVIDSONWell, it definitely is a blow. And it hits the lower income federal worker in particular. I mean, sometimes I think we have this impression that federal workers are all of these highly paid people. And some of them are paid very well, particularly those in the senior executive service. But you have a lot of people toward the lower end of the GS scale, it's a 1 through 15 scale. And I get a lot of stories, for example, from something called the Federal Employee and Education Assistance, which provides, like, loans -- really low-level loans, maybe $600 to people -- federal employees only to help them make ends meet.
DAVIDSONNow as a result of the sequester layoffs, they basically went through their budget for these low-level loans. And they didn't have any more money to loan out. And so that was before the shutdown. And so the shutdown can really cause some severe financial hardship to people, even if they will get paid eventually, because we don't know when that's going to be. And there are more federal workers living paycheck to paycheck than a lot of people realize.
NNAMDIIndeed, I think that's what Nichole in Fort Washington, Md. would like to address. Nichole you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICHOLEYes. I wanted to ask about the legal issues of forcing people to work and not paying them. And the other issue question that I had was, literally, my response to Tim who identifies those who are not getting paid or furloughed as a paid vacation. The bank is not taking a vacation from my mortgage. The gas in my car is not taking a vacation. The shopping bills are not taking a vacation. So this -- it's nice that people are saying that we're going to get paid in the future. But the reality is, no one's taking a vacation from paying their bills.
ROSSWell, I mean, I think that obviously the circumstance depends on individual -- you know, what the individual circumstances of some people who are going to be paid and know that they're going to be paid. There's some people who don't know and the uncertainty is the very thing that Suzanne's talking about, which is this uncertain -- excuse me, Nichole is talking about, this uncertainty of how it's going to affect me is often as impactful on people as the reality. And not knowing that, even though people say that it's going to happen, it's easy to say, but the sometime -- or eventually is a big word in this frame of reference for exactly the reason Nicole is talking about.
ROSSYou know, I can't go to my mortgage company and say eventually I'll pay you. Now, depending upon your relationship with whoever holds your mortgage, you know, you may have more or less flexibility, but of course we know that the people who have the least flexibility of all are almost always the lowest paid people, and they often usually also have the less flexibility in terms of their personal finances. So it's one more time when the people who are the most vulnerable get hit the hardest.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Joe Davidson, thank you for joining us.
DAVIDSONThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoe is columnist for the Washington Post. He covers the federal workforce for the Federal Diary. Also with us is Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. He's staying after the break. Howard is the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What's your impression of the way in which furloughs have been handled? If office closures have affected you, tell us how. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the government shut down and about which workers or which work is essential and which is not. Howard Ross is with us. He's a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. Author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance."
NNAMDIHoward, we got an email from Beth in DC who says, "For 33 years federal workers have received nothing but vilification from conservative politicians and nothing at all from the media." I guess Joe Davidson would beg to differ, but Beth says, "So the morale issue did not start last week. I recall a time when working for the national government was a respected occupation. Does anyone imagine that attitude will ever emerge again?"
ROSSYeah. This is a really interesting point that Beth brings up. It's much bigger than the furloughs we're dealing with now, and that is that we have over the last -- particularly over the last ten years we've seen it ramp up dramatically and even more so over the last five years, this notion that people who work for the federal government are sort of sucking on the teat of America, and are people who are seen as, you know, derisively sometimes, oh, they're a government worker, you know, sort of almost like that's an insult.
ROSSAnd you know, there's not a lot of thought to what are the implications of this as we move forward as a society. I mean, you look at some societies -- I was in Singapore on business last year, and in Singaporian society, they identify at a very early age, seven, eight, nine year old, the smartest kids, and encourage them to look at government from the time they're very young, encouraging them to look at government occupations as a career path for themselves because they want the smartest people in the government.
ROSSThey want the most intelligent people, the people who really can accomplish things in the government. When we create a mindset -- the kind of mindset that Beth's talking about, when we vilify government work, when we make it sound like what people do in the government is not meaningful, that they are in fact in some cases harmful, and even though they're being paid wages which are very reasonable in any comparative standard to what other people are making, in fact, and a lot of times being paid less, in fact people have to take often a pay cut to work for the government.
ROSSWhat we do is we begin to create a mindset in the country which says to people, you know, if we're really smart and have choices, why go work there where we're going to be vilified, go work some place in private industry and other places. And we actually over time, if that continues to happen, will lower the standard of the people who come into that work because they won't see themselves as valued. So -- and then, of course, that becomes sort of a reaffirming phenomenon that, you know, the wheel turns and pretty soon the government does tend to function on a lower level because the smartest people are deciding to take their wares elsewhere, and we have a government that functions less effectively.
ROSSSo there are potential long-term costs in the psychology of our country around that.
NNAMDIIt's not the same situation because this is a relatively unique set of circumstances with this government shut down, but are there parallels -- any parallels that you can draw between the way the government has made these decisions and the way private businesses make choices when they have to be involved in layoffs?
ROSSWell, I suspect that for most private businesses that their operating codes are much more up to their own devices, and so they've got a lot more freedom to make those decisions in a way that they want to, based on any number of subjective determinations, whereas the government as a rule generally has more codified determinants in terms of how to make that. That doesn't mean there's not some subjectivity. The more subjectivity of course you have, the more arbitrariness there is in terms of decisions.
ROSSSo all kinds of unconscious patterns and belief, behavior, and bias can show up in terms of whether they want you to stick around versus the other person down the hallway, you know, are you my buddy, are you the person who I like to work with, I like to go to versus the person down the hallway who I don't know as well, out of sight out of mind. So my suspicion is that people in the public sector are probably susceptible to more arbitrariness because of that, but a lot of that depends department to department of course.
NNAMDIHere now is Diane in Fairfax, Va. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEHi. I work for a contractor. We have about 350 employees, and we support the science agencies. And I hear, you know, I'm glad that somebody finally brought up the contractor issue because, you know, we work side by side with our federal colleagues. If they're not there, we can't work, and frankly if we're not there, they can't work either because we work hand in hand. You know, we work at FDA and EPA and NOAA and NASA. But I can tell you, you know, it's a little frustrating that all of our -- regardless of what was said earlier, our contracts, even though their funded, we got stop work orders.
DIANEAll of our employees are taking their leave. If they don't have any more leave left, they're going on leave without pay. If -- they also have the choice of going on unemployment. Not the mention the fact that we have to pay out all this leave all at the same time, but we're not getting any revenue in. So even though we're a very strong company, it's, you know, we're doing okay, and we can do okay for a couple weeks, but there's a lot of contractors out there that can't do that.
DIANEAnd, you know, we're -- I call, you know, the Feds, they're our colleagues, but this kind of situation tends to pit one against the other, and it's not a healthful discussion. We really need to look at us as a total work force, and when they say we're going to pay the Feds back, you know, back pay, they need to be doing the same thing with contractors or do nothing at all because we all -- we're all in this together, and we work side by side. And I'll take the rest off the air.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Diane.
NNAMDITo which Howard Ross, you say?
ROSSYeah. Diane's pointing exactly to the point I was making earlier because we can't effect the system, we begin to point fingers at each other, and the dissonance that shows up in -- between people in these classifications, these in group, out group classifications of essential or nonessential become, you know, become things between the people rather than directed where they should be which is at the systems taking these decisions.
ROSSYou know, there's one other aspect of this when you hear Diane talking about the role, you know, being in a contracting position where you've got this situation where all of a sudden, you know, your life is thrown up in the air. It's sort of predictable to think that some people will say at some point why do I need this aggravation? I'm going to go get another job. And people who are placed insecure situations, where the future seems to hold only more insecurity when we look at what's in front of us in our political structure and the way it's been going, the trend and the way it's been going the last five years, you got to say to yourself, you know, why do I need this aggravation?
ROSSThere are people out in the public industry who I could take my wares to and do -- and be in a situation where it's likely to be a lot more stable. It used to be that one of the things that people turned to the government for was stability. That people who could go into private industry might go into the government because the government was pretty dependable. We used to say that Washington was depression proof or recession proof because of that because the government was stable.
ROSSBut now the government is becoming as unstable or more unstable than business. So once again, we run the risk of some of our best talent turning away from the government rather than turning towards it.
NNAMDIOn now to Lou in Alexandria, Va. Lou, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LOUYes, good afternoon. I'm glad to speak with you. Some great points people are making. A lot of people are affected by this. I know with the sequestration people mentioned that furlough, but there were also FA employees, about 4,000 of them that had an additional furlough about this time two years ago. That's not been brought up, but a lot of people have incurred a lot more hardship than just the furloughs being mentioned.
LOUAnd also on some of the things like Kim's comments I think before on essential employees, it's not up to the worker who's essential or not, who stays to work or not. In fact, we are by law required not to work whether we want to or not, and they're very firm on that because that's the law. And but with that impact...
NNAMDILou, what's your own situation?
LOUMy own situation is I'm a single mother. I have three children, happily one is in school study biochemistry for her third year, and another one has got like a 4.0 in his senior looking forward to college which I'd like to be able to help with, and I have an older one employed.
NNAMDIAnd Is your federal job the only one you do?
LOUNo. I have three jobs I work, and I do some side jobs as well as my federal job. So I stay very busy, but so that's my situation. I know others are in worse situation than myself, and I can say that I'd like to be back to work. My colleagues would like to be working because when we're not working, Diane had some -- the last caller had some interesting points, but I tried, and my colleagues tried to take care of the contractors that are dependent on us, and basically if we're not there to oversee the work, you can't do the work, and some of the paperwork that needs to be processed can't be processed because the Feds that have to do that aren't there.
LOUThis happened with the FAA furlough. It cost the government much more to have that furlough than to work the issues, and that's just a matter of fact of history at this point in time. But a lot of people are impacted by this, but, you know, another point too on stability...
NNAMDIWell, before you make another point, allow me to have Howard Ross respond to the several points you've already made, Lou.
ROSSWell, I mean, look, I mean, Lou, your personal circumstance reflects exactly on what we're talking about. You know, here you have somebody who's clearly doing a Yeoman's job of taking care of her family by herself, and my -- I can -- having been a single parent at one point in my life, I know what that's like, and it's a very delicate balance, and everything has to work very carefully to make it all -- to keep it all together, and when you throw a huge monkey wrench in the works like this, it's really problematic.
ROSSAnd, you know, one other piece about this -- the whole notion of contractors that is part of this equation that we're dealing with particularly at this moment is this is of course coming on the heels of the Snowden incident and the incident at the Navel Yard. So people are already having conversations about this notion of contractors and what are contractors doing anyway, and why aren't we managing them more appropriately. So that even puts one more thing.
ROSSSo now the questions we've had about government workers is expanding now to people who contract with the government. It's this increasing concentric circles of a demonization of people or questioning of people that all comes back to Joe's comments about morale and engagement.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Lou. We got an anonymous email who says, "I don't know anyone that feels slighted for being furloughed. It was a subjective decision. We fault Congress, but not our agency. In the NOAA, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, only those who deal with health or safety, law enforcement, caring for live animals, or those whose pay is linked to fee for service, are working. But we do feel badly and frustrated about work that has been put on hold knowing we might miss deadlines, et cetera, and it's a complete disservice to the public and stakeholders that are affected by us not being on the job.
NNAMDI"What is accurate is that the labels are misleading to the public. Members of Congress need to grow up and learn what it really means to negotiate. They should all read 'Getting to Yes.' And thus Howard, we come back to what caused all of this in the first place.
ROSSWell, exactly. I mean, I think that this point is that our anonymous contributor is bringing up is, it goes back to what I said earlier which is I think that there's a difference when an entire department of people are laid off, and we know that the issue isn't internal, it's external. When you've got some people in a department being laid off and some people not, the tendency for us to get irritated either way as we heard in our caller who was talking about what it's like when a snowstorm happens, Timothy, who was talking about, you know, when people stay out for snow.
ROSSAnd so, you know, that creates more tension. Now, I happen to agree with this caller, you know, "Getting to Yes" is and wonderful book by Roger Fisher and William Ury at the Harvard Negotiation Project, and they created a whole way of negotiating, and clearly their big issues here that stem from things that you and I have talked about on air before, Kojo, which is the polarization that exists in our discourse right now that's being played out in Congress very boldly, but it really exists throughout our country, and that is that people come to issues not from looking at the issue, but they begin by looking at their ideological positions and then gather information from the issue that affirms the ideological position.
ROSSI was just reading, you know, as you know, Kojo, I'm writing a new book now on conscious bias, and I was just reading a study just the other day that comes out of Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, these three researchers, and it was fascinating. They gave these folks a financial equation that they had to work out, and the financial equation was put in the context of a word problem. They were told that this was to determine how effective some face cream was.
ROSSAnd they then had to do this very complex math problem, and about half of them got it right. Then they took the exact same numbers and they framed it differently for people. This time they put it in the context of whether or not gun carry laws contribute to crime or not, whether they contribute to increasing or diminishing crime. And before people took the test, or tried to do the problem, they asked them to self define as being either conservative or liberal, and then watch what happens.
ROSSAnd if the numbers proved the opposite of what people might politically -- they forgot how to count. That they're ability to compute the numbers dropped when, for example, a conservative found that the numbers proved that gun carry laws were a bad thing, and when a liberal found that gun carry laws were a good thing, that people just simply forgot to count, because we don't -- we're not thinking from that standpoint. So we're thinking from our ideology.
ROSSFrom a brain chemistry standpoint, it moves us from our prefrontal cortex where we can think back into the amygdala coming more from a fear and defensive standpoint, and literally don't do math as well.
NNAMDIWe've seen an outpouring of support from local businesses offering deals and discounts for furloughed workers. Is it an outpouring of compassion, savvy business, or a little bit of both?
ROSSI think it's a little bit of both. I think that people are afraid. You know, I was talking to this friend of mine who drives cars, a guy named Dennis who has been -- I've known for now 13, 14 years. He drives me, and we were talking about the impact of just in general what's happening with our -- with that marketplace, you know, the people who drive people around. But it's a great example. You know, you've got less people moving around to do work, less people that are going to be taking taxis, less people will be calling limousines.
ROSSIf you're in that business or a business like that where you're depending -- the sandwiches on the street that Joe talk about before, you got to say, well, I'm better off having somebody come in than nobody. So even if they come in and they pay me two-thirds of what I normally pay, at least two-thirds of, you know, two-thirds of something is better than nothing, and I think that there are a lot of people who are doing it for that reason.
NNAMDIIt is what it is. I guess what all eyes are on now is whether or not the Congress and the White House can get to yes. Howard Ross is a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. He's Author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Howard, always a pleasure.
ROSSThanks, Kojo. Happy birthday to my son, Jason, by the way.
NNAMDIHappy birthday, Jason. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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