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This pin acknowledges my time as a public servant in the Air Force, as a NOAA weather forecaster, and as a Decision Review Officer with VA. I am proud to have been able to give so much to my country.

While texting a friend last night about his career as a musician, he said he has been overcoming challenges and right now is focused on manifesting something much better.

This morning I got the email reminder that my Leave and Earnings statement from my federal government job is now available for review on the .mil website. It’s the one I’ve been worried about, and it took me a while to open up the website and take a look. With relief, I see that it was the best I could have hoped for, which is 73% of what I usually receive. It means that I was credited every last hour of vacation leave and sick leave I had left. Until now, I wasn’t sure if there were any wonky rules that would end up restricting use of some of those hours. But yes, I was paid for it all.

While Human Resources helps me through the paperwork, I am now in Leave Without Pay status. It makes me anxious. Today I received my last paycheck from VA. I’ve been questioning myself over and over and over: what the heck am I doing? Trulove, are you crazy?!

My job at Department of Veterans Affairs is stressful, and I may have expressed it now and then over the ten years I have been blogging. They do not manage people well, and it is hard on employees. The government takes forever to fix a problem, and that is only after they’ve taken forever to even admit there is a problem. VA has not yet realized, as an agency, that it doesn’t manage people well. Clearly the fix is not going to happen soon enough for me.

With the new White House Administration, the screws have been tightened more than ever before, and our managers are being squashed under unrealistic demands and expectations. It trickles down even though many managers try to shield us.

On a personal level, I have been struggling more than usual. I have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to multiple sexual traumas in the military. Since my job requires reading medical records of veterans so that I can make decisions about benefits, I’m reminded often of my own trauma. There is a case on my desk with someone who has PTSD every single day. It’s that common.

October 2017 sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein exploded into the #metoo and #timesup movements. I wrote, at that time, about how I can feel this kind of news story in a physical way. A jab in the stomach every time I hear the news. It has literally been in the news every single day for a year.

Beginning October 2017 my performance at work began to decline, and it just got worse. My managers had to get creative to protect me from getting fired due to my mistakes. A month ago, I hit a wall and could not go back. The combination of everything spent my resources and I couldn’t get out of bed. I have not gone back to the office. That explains why I used up every last hour of paid time off.

So here I am.

FYI, I can afford this for right now. I have talked with my financial advisor, and it’s ok for awhile. Tara can stay in college. I can make plans without time pressure. It’s a relief.

And I’m doing better. I’ve been sleeping through the night, which I think is the same as medication. I’m painting much more. I’ve had time to visit friends. I’m working on my photobook for my trip to Myanmar. These are the things that fill the fuel tank rather than drain it.

The surge of anxiety this morning with the notice that I just received my last paycheck was the most anxiety I’ve felt for a couple weeks. It feels normal to get anxious now and then over some scary news, instead of anxious every day.

A few hours ago I sat at my computer, carefully updating my financial spreadsheets, and worrying about future unknown expenses. The words from my musician friend came back to me and I realized he had given me the emotional boost I needed today. As scary as change is, I am doing a good thing. I am manifesting something much better, though I don’t yet know what that is.

Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

America, you piss me off sometimes. I feel like a parent who knows how much greatness her kid is capable of, and yet must watch while that kid takes the lazy, irresponsible route.

I work for VA. Not in a position of any influence, I work amongst thousands of other anonymous civil servants who take our responsibilities seriously. We endure the often ridiculous demands of the D.C. Central Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, because when we are able to contort ourselves into their expectations of us, they leave us alone to do our jobs. If we check the boxes and count the beans the way Central Office wants it, the end result is that we get to serve, and educate, and literally change lives for the better for our favourite group in the whole world: U.S. Veterans.

Until yesterday, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a good leader in Eric Shinseki. Not a perfect man. I’ll tell you from experience that under his watch we were worked very hard while under enormous pressure. I am not kidding when I say at times I wavered between fearing I would get fired and plotting how I would quit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some stressed out VA employees who cheer his departure. Shinseki is direct, and sincere, with high expectations, and he makes decisions and then follows through. It was usually hard to comply, but in 5 years we did some impressive things in VA. Improvements I am proud of.

The fiasco regarding VA medical facility waitlists that has shocked the nation has been identified – by Shinseki himself! – as systemic. That is ugly to hear. Painful to consider. Embarrassing. Inexcusable.

What I found most interesting about this whole ordeal was that my strongest reaction has been to feel deep regret that the employees of VA medical facilities have been under so much pressure that they had to lie to save their jobs. See, what makes my reaction different from a lot of you is that I’m not instantly thinking of the vets. I give the better part of my life to vets, I *am* a vet, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  The story I see is one of oppression in the workplace.

I think Secretary Shinseki would have been the man to get to the bottom of the problem. The work he already did to begin addressing wait list problems was lightning fast (by government standards). He knows the Agency, he knows how we keep it running, he knows what we’re up against. Now that he knows that some parts of it are infected with lies, he would have been ALL over that. Dr. Foote, now known as the whistle blower, also felt that Shinseki should stay onbronze side

HOW will forcing his resignation and bringing on someone who doesn’t know what’s going on fix anything? How will Sloan Gibson merge into this breakneck pressure we’re already negotiating within? The pressure of eliminating the backlog of disability claims. The pressure of getting veterans quick appointments. The pressure of constant media disdain and misleading news headlines.

You bastards, whoever you are. Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back for forcing Shinseki to resign. By implying that this could be a partisan issue, and by directing your fury at the Secretary, you have successfully allowed the public NOT to have a discussion about how to fix the problems. You have hurt veterans more than you know.  Your demands should have been to insist that the Secretary fix the problem, not for him to leave. Now the sheep among us will think something was done to address the problem, and that the problems are as good as fixed.

We missed our opportunity to do the only thing that really would have helped the situation, which is to have public outrage centered on how we got into this mess. Members of our U.S. House and Senate were screaming to take down Shinseki, but they cleverly did not clamor to hold themselves responsible for providing the funding to increase VA medical facility size and staffing to fix this problem.

Just think about it sensibly. The reason why a hospital can’t bring in a patient is either because there is no room, or there is no doctor available to see the patient. Can’t you see that firing people is not going to fix the problem? Isn’t that obvious to anyone but me?

That’s why I feel such empathy for the employees at the medical facilities identified. I can imagine how dreadfully stressful their jobs must have been up to this point. And now some of them have been fired, adding insult to injury.

Possibly the first person to attempt to change things at the Phoenix VA facility was Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who contends that after confiding in hospital director Sharon Helman, she was subsequently disciplined and transferred. She then tried to confidentially complain again, this time to the Inspector General, but instead of being touted a hero, was put on administrative leave and threatened that she may be held accountable for violating patient privacy by her allegations. The one who finally got this recent ball rolling is Dr. Sam Foote, who first retired, then took on the role of whistle-blower. These are only two people, but the environment is made very clear to me: if doctors – the power elite  of hospitals – if doctors’ complaints are met with disciplinary action, then there is no hope that a complaint will be taken seriously from the scheduling clerk who answers the phone and handles appointments. In fact, it’s pretty clear that anyone who resists the system can expect to get fired.

Have you been spouting off about the integrity of those VA employees? Well ask yourself if you’re willing to get fired today. Are you? It is another example of asking the victim to be the one responsible for changing their environment.

When this nation found out what was happening to our veterans, having to wait so long for an appointment that they missed critical care, and in some cases may have died while still waiting, we were right to be astonished and offended by the news. Our next step should have been an outpouring of support to the hospitals, asking them “What can we do for you? How can we help?” And most of all, we should have all apologized for ignorantly allowing them to suffer for so long. Newspapers and television networks could have used their fabulous investigative skills to root out VA facilities that were finding ways to succeed without lying, and to identify proposals to improve the system that no one was taking seriously yet. Reporters could have spun the story so that the American public learned that our representatives in Washington, D.C. had been the source of the edict to get vets into facilities in two weeks or less, but had not provided the financial support necessary to make it happen. We could have begun campaigns to let Congress know that we love our vets so much, we want them to approve a VA hospital budget that will actually allow us to take care of them the way they deserve to be taken care of.

When faced with a critical decision to make, our country’s leaders copped out and picked a scapegoat on whom to blame their problems. American citizens, we are bad parents of our government. They will never learn to live up to their potential if we don’t teach it to them.

Me with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Me with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Shinseki's coin

Shinseki’s coin

VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) ran out of money at close of business Monday. I work for VBA, which is not VHA.

VHA (Veterans Health Administration) is funded under a different system, which means they already have FY 2014 dollars. So hospitals, clinics, and other VA-funded health centers will continue operations without fear of running out of appropriated funds.

At my workplace, then, operations continued under normal conditions through Monday. Tuesday morning, however, people were called one at a time into their supervisors’ offices, and presented with either a furlough letter, or an excepted letter. Most of us at VBA are excepted from furlough. The two categories are drastically different. Furloughed employees were sent directly home. They were not allowed to dally, not allowed to finish up what they were working on, not allowed to use VA equipment at work or at home, not allowed to work at all…not even if they agree to do it on a volunteer basis. Excepted employees must work. They are not allowed to take time off, even previously approved time off.

No one gets paid.

We are told that excepted employees will get back pay, and that furloughed employees may or may not get back pay, depending on what Congress decides to do. IMHO Congress will not vote ‘yes’ to deny a paycheck to hundreds of thousands of federal employees. As unbalanced and unfair a painting as it may be, I can’t help but paint a picture in my mind of two categories of federal employees: those working for free, and those on paid vacation.

It was 1995 when I went through this the last time. I was a forecaster with the National Weather Service back then. As an employee whose mission statement was the “protection of life and property,” I felt -a little miffed- but mostly proud to be facing the political storm with a brave face and serving my country. As a nation we MUST keep abreast of the weather situation. Knowing the weather is critical to public safety, to agriculture, to commerce, to wildland management, fisheries…. ok…sorry. My point is, when I helped my team to forecast the weather, it was obvious that I needed to be there.

This time around, I don’t feel the same kind of calling. Yes, taking care of veterans is a job to be proud of, but this is not the same as protection of life and property. It’s deciding who is entitled to benefits checks. The veterans already receiving checks will continue to receive them, but my job is to decide if more people should get checks, or if those checks should be in greater or lesser amounts. Remember VA healthcare is not in jeopardy right now. If a vet is sick, she can go to the hospital.

Working during a government shut down doesn’t feel very noble this time.

Not when I compare it to other jobs in terms of who is Mission Critical. FEMA was sent home. I can hardly believe it was successfully argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is less important to our nation than paying somebody $129 a month because their ears were damaged while working on the flight deck. Honestly, I’d be glad to forfeit my $129 till next month if we could send FEMA back to work.

I’ve been trying to discover why I feel so sour about this, and I suspect it’s because I don’t want to go to work. I am dying for a break. It’s a hard place to work, with constant production pressure (each veteran’s claim is a point, and we must earn so many points per day, without making mistakes, in order to keep our job), no end in sight (something like 13,000 pending claims in the state of Oregon), media harassment (the backlog!), and mandatory overtime on top of all of that. The government shut down means all of that is still true AND we aren’t getting paid.

Motivation in this girl is about as low as it gets.

The bright side is that during a government shut down there is no mandatory overtime! Woo hoo!

The bright side is that I love my co-workers and my supervisor, and even the veterans (many of us ARE veterans), and we are all in this together.

The bright side is that I cashed out a certificate of deposit, so I have enough money to get by for at least a month.

The bright side is that I live in the United States of America, and even though my Congresswomen and men are behaving like second-graders and I am embarrassed for this to be witnessed by the rest of the world…I can say to them, “You people are a bunch of effing idiots!” outloud, and in public, and I won’t go to jail for it.

My office. I affectionately refer to it as The Cubicle Sea. Inspiring, isn’t it?

A recurring theme in the press these days: Damned federal workers raking in the dough at taxpayer’s expense, while the country staggers beneath mounting debt. I’ve seen politicians ranting about how my pay is drastically higher than the private sector, even double the average American wage. For example, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, said in late 2010 that “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year.” Another source claims that the average federal salary is $74,300 compared to a private sector salary of $49,777. I found another estimate of $109-$116, and an estimate that is not as condemning at $67,691. If my only source of information was the news, I would be one of the millions who resent people like me. Since I am a federal employee, however, I know better.

Will the real salary please stand up?

So let’s have it out right here: I was recently promoted and now earn a base salary of $60,274. I have 18 years of federal service behind me, including my service in the Air Force. I have a Master’s Degree. My job requires extensive medical knowledge and extensive legal knowledge, and I make legal decisions to award or not award compensation. So you make the call: would you expect an employee in the private sector with my background to make a whopping $60K? The average salary of a registered nurse is $38K – $73K, the average salary of a paralegal is $26K – $64K, and the average salary of a judge is $30K – $136K. Since I’ve got years of experience behind me, I think I should be compared to the higher end. In fact, since I have to know all three jobs, it might be more accurate to add them together (73+64+136= $273K).

The above paragraph sounds like I am leading you to say I don’t earn enough. But in my opinion, it’s a fair wage.  I don’t think I’m underpaid, because I have great benefits that close the gap between what I earn and what I would expect someone like me in the private sector would earn. I have a little discounted life insurance, 26 days of paid vacation (which I earned after reaching 15 years of federal service), and sick leave. Federal employees have gradual pay increases over time, which is a common practice in the private sector.

I also have the choice to opt in to supposedly discounted health insurance, but I do not buy it because it’s still ridiculously expensive in my opinion. For an average $138.90 every two weeks, my daughter and me can be insured. That’s $3,611 a year. Not worth it since my out of pocket expenses are not even half that without insurance, not to mention federal insurance does not include eye care or dental care, which has to be purchased in addition. So, imho, the famous federal health benefits are no benefit.

A final benefit is for federal employees who live in a more expensive urban area compared to the rest of the nation. Those people get an additional “locality pay” adjustment added to their base salary. I am lucky enough to benefit from this additional resource because I live in Portland, Oregon.

Who are the workers we are comparing?

What is an average federal worker compared to an average private sector worker? The feds don’t hire many equivalents of burger-flippers or janitors – those types of jobs are contracted out to private workers. The federal workforce is filled with people who had to get a college degree before they were even qualified to apply. Think of the number of jobs that exist in our country, and think of how many of them are paid minimum wage or near that, and it’s instantly obvious why the average private sector wage is lower. The comparison is as false as comparing the average private sector worker to the average Boeing employee. Apples and Oranges, people.

How much do federal employees earn?

What I want to know is: who are these millionaire federal employees who are bumping up the average?

Most of us are paid under the General Schedule (GS), which ranges from GS-1 through GS-15. I’m not able to find a good resource that shows the median GS level in the federal workforce. I think it would be revealing. I am at the high end (GS-12), which I would expect from the skill level of my job. I worked previously for the National Weather Service as a GS-11 weather forecaster. Again it was at the high end, and rightfully so, since the NWS is tasked with “protection of life and property” at the behest of our government. Make all the fun you want, but weather forecasters are front and center in the economics and disaster preparedness and response of any country. (To get that job, you need a degree in atmospheric sciences, with courses including Calculus, Dynamics, and Physics.) My father worked 33 years for the U.S. Forest Service, and didn’t manage to crack GS-10 until after twenty years, and even that came about by chance when a new position was created. From my experience, I have only known GS-14s, and GS-15s to be office directors. Thus, in the federal government, directors (CEOs) can earn up to $99,628 (and if they remain in that position for 18 years, they can earn $129,517 annually). Private sector CEOs are more likely to earn 7 times that amount than half of it.

My guess is that the majority of federal employees are GS-5 through GS-9, and I’ll bet there are more GS-9s than any other level. Those workers get a base salary of $41,563 which increases gradually with time. (ok, ok, the GS-9 is a guess. Provide me with a resource of the actual median GS level of federal employees and I’ll revise. I promise!)

There are 2,750,00 total federal employees, 7000 of which are in Senior Executive Service positions, the highest paychecks available to us. SES make up less than 1% of the federal workforce, with average salaries of $120K – $165K. The rest of us are paid under the General Schedule (GS) (plus a scattering of different plans I won’t get into here).  All of these 2¾ million federal employees earn more the longer they hold their current position, as is common in the private sector. For example, if I continue to do my job well (i.e. have no reason for my supervisor to limit my promotion, which can happen), then in another 18 years my base salary will be $78K. Thus by extrapolating, one can assume that some of the GS employees and all of the SES employees are earning six figures. I am missing a lot of data to do an accurate average wage, but the numbers just don’t average out to $120,000 no matter how you slice it. Let’s say the six-figure earners total 27,500 employees (1%); is that enough to pull everyone’s wage up to six figures? Of course not. What if they made up 2%? 5%? 10% Still not enough.

Where do the high numbers come from?

After a little research, it turns out that the “average wage” touted by those who believe we are earning too much, includes things that are not wages at all. Benefits equated to salary include our so-called discounted medical insurance (regardless of whether or not I choose to opt in), the small life insurance policy I mentioned, as well as benefits received by employees who qualify under an old system that is not available to any of us hired in the mid 1980s or later.

Our salary average also includes the retirement benefits paid to past federal workers!

It is misrepresentation of the truth to say that since I work for an employer that provides great benefits, then my wages are really n+1 when the amount that shows up in my credit union account is n. If you want to do that with federal workers, then do that with the private sector too. How valuable are the things we don’t have that some private companies offer, such as fitness club memberships and on-site child care? Smucker’s 100% tuition reimbursement (I’m still paying on my $80K student loan)? How about the 20% free time at Google? And seriously, did I just find out my detractors want to penalize me for choosing one employer over another based on benefits? I call it smart, not criminal.

An example of a stereotypical federal employee

You want one? It’s me. I’m a divorced, single-mom raising a teenager. I’m buried in student loans and mortgage debt, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that my 14-year old vehicle can continue to serve us for a few more years. If not, I’ll have an auto loan too.  We do ok, here, though. We are able to pay for ballet classes for my daughter and school expenses like a new dress for 8th grade graduation, yearbooks, annual photos, new shoes, glasses (she keeps losing them!), and braces. I expect that these daily expenses will mount as she gets older and makes her way through high school. I can pay all the bills and add a few dollars each month toward paying off credit card debt created when I bought airline tickets for my brother’s family so he could visit Mom for Thanksgiving. I donate to a string of charities — not a lot, but I donate. We wear our clothes till they aren’t nice enough to give to Salvation Army, and we wait till movies hit the Academy because tickets are only $4. I wash and re-use plastic baggies. Yes, I do! We have everything we need, but only because we are careful.

So when you need a face to represent the outrageous wage abuses by spoiled federal workers, you can use mine.

One of my many guises

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