J. David Cox traveled to Selma, Ala. at the invitation of. President Barack Obama to commemorate the hallowed civil rights march. It was an honor for the president of the American Federation of Government Employees. No other union heads were invited. George and Laura Bush were there, as was House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who braved the police billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years earlier, also was in attendance.
Cox treated the august moment for remembrance as an opportunity. After shaking the president’s hand, Cox told him, “boss man, it’s time for a raise.” Being asked for more money at a civil rights event must have been an awkward moment for the president.
The timing of Cox’s ask was doubly tacky because it came shortly after the Government Accountability Office dropped a bombshell: only 0.18 percent of the federal workforce was fired for poor performance and bad conduct last year. Can anyone name another employer who so little weeds out bad workers?
Federal union heads blame management. Matthew Biggs of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers said federal managers have plenty of tools to dump bad employees. William Dougan, head of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said “a lack of proper training and preparation of the first-line supervisors” is the reason bum feds stay in their jobs.
Strictly speaking, federal workers can be fired for poor performance. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 lays out the process in law, which is further spelled out in reams of Office of Personnel and agency-specific regulations. An employee must have regular performance assessments and must be encouraged to help set performance standards. Those who do not perform well must be given notice, meetings must be held to discuss performance and under-performers must be given help and opportunities to improve. Before an employee can be fired or even demoted, he is entitled to be represented by an attorney. It takes six months to a year, according to GAO, to get rid of a bad fed, and this usually occurs with new hires.
Managers who take issue with an employee’s performance may face reprisal in the form of accusations of discrimination or creating a hostile work environment. This partly explains why so few feds are removed from their jobs; he process is paper-work heavy and grueling.
Unions exist to protect their members. But a “due process” system that produces guaranteed lifetime employment benefits nobody.
For one, it is inherently inequitable. Most of America’s 105 million full-time workers do not have jobs for life. Having to work hard and keep the boss happy is the norm. To the average working stiff, a government job for life looks like an entitlement. Perhaps this is part of the reason a mere 11 percent of the public has great confidence in government agencies.
GAO also observes the failure to show bad workers the door is toxic for morale. Most federal employees are good workers. They suffer when the bad eggs among them misbehave and fail to pull their load.
The feeling of guaranteed lifetime employment has insidious effects. Workers grow comfortable and see little reason to push themselves or keep their skills and resumes market competitive. At some point, they realize they are stuck: bored in their current jobs but uncompetitive in the job market. They become clock-watchers, waiting for the opportunity to retire.
Congress should make Cox an offer he cannot refuse: give federal employees a raise but end life tenure. Current employees could retain the protections of the Civil Service Reform Act, but all newly hired feds would be put on 10-year renewable contracts. Those workers who are good at their jobs will indubitably be retained, because it is a costly hassle to replace a good employee.
Over time, renewable 10-year contracts would produce a happier and better federal workforce, and one without bad employees enjoying taxpayer-subsidized jobs for life. What’s not to like?