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The Government Shutdown Could Mean an Exodus of Public-Sector Employees

There's reason to believe Trump's willingness to freeze worker pay might have created a rift that can't be fixed.
A Transportation Security Administration worker screens passengers at O'Hare International Airport on January 7th, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois.

A Transportation Security Administration worker screens passengers at O'Hare International Airport on January 7th, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois. It was TSA agents' "sick-outs" that immediately precipitated a deal ending the shutdown.

The longest government shutdown in United States history is finally over—at least until February 15th—after President Donald Trump agreed Friday to fund the government for a few weeks while he worked with Congress to hammer out a deal on immigration and border security. And while that's all well and good, for those individuals who actually bore the brunt of the 35-day shutdown—America's public servants—the damages incurred can last a lifetime.

The shutdown left more than 800,000 federal workers and nearly a million federal contractors working without pay. As the fiasco wore on, and stories began piling up of disgruntled federal employees forced to turn to soup kitchens and family for meals, some bureaucrats were finally forced to act: It was Transportation Security Administration agents and air traffic controllers taking "sick-outs" at major airports that immediately precipitated a deal to end the shutdown.

But now that the federal government has re-opened, there's reason to think many of those workers won't stick around for the long haul. Indeed, the latest snafu may have served as an impetus for a sizable number of government workers to leave their posts—and that would mean the federal government would lose a significant amount of institutional memory from employees who don't want to show to a workplace that treats their paychecks so haphazardly.

This exodus was likely already underway before the shutdown: Government reports reveal that the federal government has experienced higher turnover rates since Trump came into office. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government saw 468,000 employee exits in 2017, more than any of the previous four years.

For the private sector, an increase in departures doesn't necessarily indicate dissatisfaction with the workplace; in fact, high quit rates in various industries tend to correspond with a healthier economy. But that's not the case with government workers. Consider that, in July of 2018, a report from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, an agency that helps ensure meritocratic standards across the government, stated that, "history demonstrates that once an individual is hired into the federal government, that person tends to remain in federal service for a long time."

That commitment to the public sector is not on account of the excellent pay. While a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report indicated that the average compensation of federal employees tends to outstrip that of private-sector workers at every education level (with the exception of those with professional degrees or doctorates), that was wholly a function of benefits rather than outright pay. The CBO found that, for any white-collar worker with a bachelor's degree or more, there's no major wage perk to working in the federal government—a factor that suggests there might be disproportionate pain inflicted upon government employees who have to dip into their savings accounts due to missed paychecks or sporadic benefit gaps.


So why do people stay in these government jobs? For many, it's because they are satisfied with their work. It's no shock, then, to see that a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research examination of electoral outcomes and turnover in the federal bureaucracy found that ideological realignment of the presidency usually results in accelerated turnover among senior-level federal employees, "particularly in agencies whose views diverge from those of the new president."


If this so-called "ideological mismatch" between the Trump administration and some of its core departments (for example, the Department of the Interior) had exacerbated quit rates in the first place, then Trump's willingness to freeze worker pay might have created a rift that can't be fixed. Representatives from government employee unions have said as much. "It sounds corny, I know ... federal employees are extremely devoted to the mission of their agencies," Jacqueline Simon, the director of public policy for the American Federation of Government Employees, a government workers union, told the New York Times. "They don't just fall into these jobs. They believe in public service; they believe in what they do."

If they don't feel the president believes in what they do, they may decide to exit. That would pose a whole new problem for Washington.