By J. Glenn Eugster, Alexandria
To the editor:
I worked for the federal government from 1976 until 2008, and I believe that I witnessed everything at least twice. The feds were furloughed 17 times during my career. The longest time was in 1996, when we were out for 21 days.
Most of the time it was no big deal because the work belonged to us, and we decided where and when it would be done. True, the government and Congress own the buildings, desks, cars, phones, copy machines and computers, but the work has always belonged to the workers.
Former President Ronald Reagan hired James Watt to lead the Department of Interior early in my career. His approach was to threaten everyone with a “reduction in force.” Frankly, that administration didn’t believe what we were doing was necessary. The threats worked, and 12 of my staff of 15 left voluntarily for fear that they would be laid off.
From that experience, we were more determined not to let politically motivated people take our jobs from us. You see, we were public servants, and we believed in the idea of working in the interest of the public. The free-market system can do a lot of things, but it cannot represent the public interest in America.
Some days during this period, the situation was dismal. Once, with a death wish in our heart, we organized a workers strike — complete with a signed resolution — and walked off the job one afternoon. Luckily, we reconsidered before anyone knew we were gone.
When we recovered from the Watt years, we accepted the fact that many federal agency managers were mean-spirited and had agendas that were more political than public-minded. We expanded our budget to more than $2 million and hired a staff of 43. We recruited people who believed that their work was important.
Our belief was grounded in our legislative mandates and the strong support we received from state, local and private leaders across the country.
When you are working as a federal employee and a furlough comes, it turns you around. Some people find the experience not worth the trouble and move on to the private sector or other levels of government.
For those of us that braved the storms of uncertainty, we survived by taking refuge in our belief that it’s an honor to serve our country. That work was what made the good times and the hard times worth it.
Those recently furloughed need to use their downtime to think about what motivates their interest in federal service beyond a job or a paycheck.
Finding a job is easy. Finding a job that makes a difference — and that you have a passion for — is more of a challenge. Until you decide differently, the work belongs to you, no matter what.