A whole lot worse…

For eighteen months, “furlough” and “hiring freeze” are words that continually show up atop the list of search terms that drag people kicking and screaming to my little slice of the internet. Having spent an outlandish amount of time bitching and complaining about both over the last two years, I guess that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I’d love to tell you all that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that Uncle Sam’s financial woes are behind him, well, there’s really nothing out there that indicates that’s true at all. From all outward appearances, Uncle has managed to paper over the worst of the problems for the time being. While that seems like a good thing, it probably just means that he’s managed to kick the can further down the road and that when it comes time to settle the tab, it will be even worse than we thought.

By my most recent calculation, I’ve worked under a hiring freeze of one sort or another for about a third of my career. I’m not feeling the pinch at the moment because I’m not actively looking for an eject button, but if I was options would be pretty limited. Having personally experienced the fresh hell of sending out multiple hundreds of resumes to get a handful of interviews, I don’t envy anyone looking for fresh horizons under the latest incarnation of the freeze. Even more unfortunate, I don’t see the market thawing any time soon, either.

Uncle has been warning about employee furloughs for months now. The general public reacted badly to the notion of laying off food inspectors and air traffic controllers, two very visible activities carried out by random, faceless bureaucrats. I have my doubts if there’s going to be the same outcry for defense workers. Working behind the wire, most of the public will never see or know what we do on a daily basis. As a result, us staying home for a week or a month isn’t something they see or experience firsthand. That makes us easy to ignore and therefore an excellent target of opportunity for cost reduction or avoidance.

So far, the department’s official position, at least the one that it’s opted to communicate to the workforce, seems to be ignoring the issue and hoping it goes away… at least that’s what it looks like from the inside. Predictions range from “nothing’s going to happen” to having to take the full 22-day furlough within the last 3 months of the fiscal year. Someone at echelons higher than reality probably has the smattering of a plan, but for the time being the drones are being kept well insulated from anything that resembles official information.

As we grind towards the end of fiscal year 2013, I think we’ll come through with minimal disruptions. What no one is talking about yet, and what I’m convinced is going to bight us all in the ass is that sequestration is a ten year event. Even if we ride out year one with cost savings through attrition and quietly cooking the books, we’ve still got nine years of draconian cost savings to generate…and in my mind that means things are going to get a whole lot worse in the out years before they ever start getting better.

Seeing the forest…

We had an awkward conversation at the office this morning. One of the most popular discussions happening around almost every one of Uncle Sam’s conference room tables these days is what the forced cuts of the sequester are going to mean for the job and for the individual employees. Since the almost universal answer is no one really knows yet, these conversations usually end in a great gnashing of teeth and another hour gone down the tubes. I’m pretty sure I know what those at echelons higher than reality are thinking though – that if they just plan hard enough, they can still figure out how to cram 40 hours of work into a legislatively-imposed 32 hour workweek.

In trying to account for and occupy every second of those 32 hours, they’re missing the broader point that in addition to the eight hours a week of “lost” time, people are also going to be using their sick and annual leave allotments just as they would under a 40-hour week – except now they’re using it over a shortened week, dramatically compressing the number of days available when leave can be taken. If pushed, I’d make an educated guess that a one-fifth reduction in the work week will actually result in the average office being staffed at somewhere between 50-60 percent on any given day during the furlough period.

If you want a crash course in my logic, here it goes: My personal observation is that on any given work day, about 15% of the total workforce is out of the office on some kind of approved leave. All other factors staying equal, with the sequester furlough (20%) and the use of leave (15%) 35% of the available pool of employees will be unavailable for work. Add in another 5% of the time when immoveable objects like mandatory training take place and you’re into the 40% unavailable range… So while the official talk is about a 20% reduction in work and the activities that will slow down and stop as a result of it, I tend to think someone is being rather optimistic. The real impact is going to be much closer to leaving only 60-65% of time available to actually get the job done.

Compile other intangibles like steadily declining morale, pay that’s likely to be frozen for at least three years, and general worry about being able to meet simple obligation like rent, food, and other expenses, with the direct negative effects of the sequester furlough, and you’ve got a recipe for intensely negative performance across the board. The problem, as far as I can tell, is no one is seeing the second and third order effects of this forest because the trees are so damned close. The media and certain elements on the Hill are fond of pointing out that the sequester hit and nothing happened. Those wheels are in motion and sooner rather than later the real impacts are going to start making themselves felt. That’s when the hard decisions are going to get made about what tasks get done day-to-day and which get tossed over the side for lack of time to do them… and that’s going to be when the real awkward conversations start.

Concession…

I made my first concession to the sequestration this morning – I now have a “lunch pail.” I know that doesn’t sound like much of a big deal, but back in the early days of the universe when I was a first year teacher brown bagging lunch every day, I made up my mind that I would officially designate life successful when I could eat lunch somewhere different every day and retire the brown bags. It sounds like a good idea, until you really look at the pesky fact that subs and salads from Wawa are running you a couple of hundred bucks a month. Since the sequester seems like it’s going to hang around for a while, it seems like the better part of valor is to try cutting back the small pleasures to save the bigger ones. Sadly, Wawa’s tasty, tasty sandwiches are probably just the first of many victims of my ruthless sequestration-induced budgetary realignment. No worries about morale when you’ve got a couple of slightly smushed PB&J’s and a warm Diet Coke. War is apparently a bad business to be in when we seem determined to pretend that peace is breaking out all over.

Just the parts you like…

I’m about to break ranks with Fox News, and you know that gives me a slightly queazy feeling on the inside. Still, I’ve made a habit of calling a spade a spade with everything else that ends up on my mind, so it’s only fair to call out your friends when they’re being asshats too. For the last six months or so, Fox News commentators have been screaming for the administration to cut government spending… except for Defense. And the FAA. And Homeland Security. And Border Patrol. Look, I’m a registered republican and draw a salary from one of the departments that you’re supporting, so I have a vested interested in being a defense sector booster but I know well and good there’s plenty of room to cut if it’s done smartly (i.e. not through an across the board cut as currently provided for by law and certainly not just by lopping off a work day every week for the next six months).

For the last two days, though, where Fox has decided to make a stand is on the subject of White House tours. Seriously? Guided tours of the White House are apparently so vital to the long term health and welfare of the republic that they should be included on the list of items to be fully funded… It’s so important that it ranks right up along with funding the troops still fighting in Afganistan. You have got to be shitting me, Fox.

Oh, you say, it only saves $75,000 a week. It’s a drop in the spending bucket. And you’re right. It’s one drop. A drop that over the six months of this years round of sequestration would save $1.65M of the $24M you say the White House must cut from their budget. That one drop is a pretty good start.

Sorry folks, but the need to cut spending isn’t about what programs you like, or I like, or the sixth grade class from East Pignuckle, Louisiana likes. It’s about reducing spending in accordance with the laws that Congress passes and the president signed into law. If it’s a bad law, it’s only bad because that’s the way some jackwagon staffer on the Hill wrote it.

I’ll be the first to tell you that the way sequestration was written, it’s just about the dumbest piece of legislation I’ve ever personally seen become law of the land. But the national consensus was that we want to reduce spending. Guess what? That means some of the things that people like just aren’t going to get done anymore. You wanted smaller government? Just remember that smaller government looks like fewer tours, fewer soldiers, slower refund processing, and generally less of everything we’ve become accustomed to over the last 60 years. If you don’t like what it looks like now that smaller government is here, push to change the law, don’t just sit around bitching about what you’ve lost. The future is about priorities and if you’re not speaking up for yours, someone else will be happy to let their voice be heard.

Redefining irony…

Most mornings I’m greeted at the office with more than a handful of emails. Usually they’re run of the mill mass notifications that come in overnight, but just occasionally they’re something a little more than that. Like this morning, when the two messages at the top of my inbox were one providing more information on the impending furlough of federal employees and the other inviting me to take an employee satisfaction survey. It’s hard to find a better definition of irony than landing those two topics next to one another.

Let me be real honest here for a minute… no matter how much I may like my job, the people I work with, or how well the building is heated and cooled, when you tell me you’ll be cutting my pay by 20% for the remainder of the year, my employee satisfaction plummets into negative numbers. No amount of ample parking, health fairs, and access to a gym is going to compensate for that. Sorry. There’s being a team player, and then there’s getting screwed with your pants on… and I’ve been around long enough to know the difference when I see it.

In a republic, one makes his displeasure known by registering an opinion with their elected “leaders,” and yes I use that term loosely. Having expressed by disgust to the head of the executive branch, the legislative branch leadership team, and to my own elected representatives, all that’s really left is to register my profound discontent here in my very own marketplace of ideas. Honestly, stoking the fire here is probably more productive than anything I’ve bothered to send to our political masters anyway. At least here, I know someone is going to actually going to get around to reading what ends up on the page… and as a special bonus, I won’t get a form letter in response.

Saved this space (for no apparent reason)…

We had a “surprise” town hall meeting at work today and I was saving this space for some sharp and scathing commentary on what I assumed would be breaking the official silence on sequestration, fiscal uncertainty, and the impending budget cuts to our little slice of paradise here at the top of the Bay. Instead we got the typical once a quarter, “you’re doing great work” speech and a few other pearls of wisdom. In the absence of crippling financial news, I find that I don’t really have anything to say.

Waiting to find out what the world will look like a month from now every time someone calls a meeting is a tough way to live… especially in a place that loves meetings as much as we do. So yeah, this space stayed blank for no apparent reason today… but there other shoe is out there somewhere. It’s lurking, and waiting. Waiting to fall out of the sky to pummel some poor dumb group of unsuspecting employees that had the misfortune of thinking that going to work for their Uncle seemed like a good idea at the time. Boy are they gonna be surprised.

I’m glad that for today at least it wasn’t me… but since every silver lining has a dark cloud around it, it’s pretty much left me with nothing interesting to say tonight.

The view from my fighting position…

I’ve been blogging here at jeffreytharp.com for almost three years now. For all my other ranting and raving, the single most searched for and commented on posts were consistently focused on the 2011 Army hiring freeze. Some version of “hiring freeze” has been in the top spot for searches that bring people to the blog. Now, I love web traffic as much as any blogger, but honestly, I hoped that was a topical area that I’d be able to leave dead and buried. The hiring freeze that trapped me two years ago is long gone, but it’s been replaced by a newer, broader, and seemingly more permanent version. That doesn’t bode well for the average person working the line in an organization that has always sung the praises of personal mobility as a means to progress to reaching bigger and better opportunities.

In a world where a one-half-of-one-percent raise is a political football, the future does not look like a particularly bright, shiny place. Throw in what looks like a cross between budgetary indecision and panic at the most senior levels of leadership, the knowledge that the worse of the cuts aren’t yet here, and that there’s now open talk of across-the-board furloughs and reductions in force for the first time in a generation, and well, you’ve got yourself a workforce that shows up every day wondering when the other shoe is going to hurtle out of the sky like a dying communications satellite.

Even if the budget situation is resolved without what feels like almost inevitable bloodletting, it’s already taken its toll. Not backfilling empty positions, piling more work on those who remain, holding salaries flat as the price of everything else increases, and repeatedly telling everyone that the worst is yet to come isn’t a recipe for getting the most out of a workforce. In this one case, my hat’s off to management for trying their best to moderate the worst of the outside forces that impact all of us… but when your fates all hang on the ability of politicians to get things done in a smart and timely manner, well, you can understand my not being particularly optimistic about what the future holds.

That’s my view from my fighting position, anyway. So let’s all cross out fingers and hope that someone proves me wrong.