Veterans Day is this week, a time when we reflect on the greatness of our nation and the freedoms we all enjoy.
As active and retired federal employees, we thank those in the military for the sacrifices they’ve made. We, too, are proud of our nation and of our service to it.
Each day in communities across Montana and the nation, federal employees go to work serving the public, making sure mail is delivered, food is safe to eat and planes travel safely through our skies. We also work to stop the spread of deadly diseases, prepare for disasters, help farmers grow better crops and manage our forests.
And, nationwide, more than a million of us work in jobs that are directly related or integral to the security and advancement of the U.S. military. Additionally, one in four federal workers is a veteran.
Yet, despite our service and commitment to our country, federal employees have been increasingly singled out during our nation’s recent financial debate. Some members of Congress have suggested disproportionate cuts to our benefits and salaries as a way to trim spending and reduce the deficit.
President Barack Obama has already imposed a two-year pay freeze on federal employee salaries. Some members of Congress want the freeze extended to five years. The president and others also have suggested taking money out of our paychecks, too, by increasing the amount we must contribute toward our retirement plans.
Yes, times are tough, and we must all do our part. But federal employees shouldn’t be singled out as deficit scapegoats. Because we work for the government, we’re an easy target.
Our leaders speak of “federal employees” in an abstract way. We’re treated as faceless bureaucrats working in a labyrinth of cubicles in Washington, D.C., living on the taxpayers’ dime.
But real federal workers are just like workers everywhere. We hold a wide variety of skills and education. And the vast majority of us — 84 percent — work outside of Washington, D.C., performing a wide range of services throughout the nation. And guess what? The most credible studies indicate that on average, we’re paid 22 percent less than workers doing comparable jobs in the private sector.
Another fact that frequently gets ignored: The federal work force has shrunk significantly compared to the overall U.S. population. In 1969, there were 3 million federal employees serving 203 million Americans. Today, 2.8 million federal employees serve 307 million Americans.
In Montana, there are more than 12,000 active federal workers and an equal number who are now retired. Look around your communities and churches. We are your friends and neighbors. We come from all walks of life. Like our fellow Montanans, we are hardworking people with families, taking pride in what we do and the contributions we make to our local communities and Montana’s economy.
Serving our country and fellow Montanans is an honor. We don’t ask for any special treatment, only to be treated fairly, not as fall guys.
The two-year pay freeze will save an estimated $5 billion in federal spending. Our pay shouldn’t be cut on top of that. And retired federal workers, living on fixed incomes, shouldn’t have their retirement benefits slashed. This isn’t the definition of “shared sacrifice.”
Going after salaries and benefits won’t help the economy in the long term. It only adds to the economic uncertainty of working people and undermines already weakened consumer confidence. Changes in policy and salaries also will make it more difficult for the government to attract and maintain the best employees in vital jobs.
We urge Montana’s congressional delegation to recognize the important contributions made by federal workers to our state. And we hope that we will be treated fairly when it comes to addressing the challenges facing our nation.
(Janice J. Erfle is president of the Montana Federation of Chapters, National Active and Retired Federal Employees.)