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Shutdown Tarnishes Government’s Brand, and It Could Get Worse

Feb. 8, 2019, 10:45 AM

NASA scientists don’t grow on trees, and the partial shutdown that ended Jan. 25 could make it harder to recruit them in the future. A second shutdown in 2019, which could happen as early as Feb. 16, might lead to more damage to NASA and other federal agencies.

“Our ability to attract, recruit, and retain quality people is tangibly diminished” by the just-ended 35-day shutdown, Paul Greenberg, a scientist at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, told Bloomberg Law. Greenberg is also vice president of Local 28 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, an AFL-CIO affilate that represents NASA employees and other professionals in the private and public sectors.

Some employees and contractors at NASA are retiring or finding other jobs because of the shutdown, Greenberg said. There are also “the recruits that you never get” because they aren’t as interested in working for the agency, he said.

Some of the alternative work options available to employees with in-demand skills become more attractive when their work lives face long-term disruptions because of politics, he said. For example, a cybersecurity expert at NASA recently took a job at Google specifically because he didn’t appreciate being furloughed during the shutdown, Greenberg said.

“This is not a hypothetical,” he said.

Margaret Weichert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 7 that the government’s central HR agency intends “to continue to monitor recruitment and retention data to measure any possible impact created by the unprecedented lapse and tight labor market.”

At the same time, Weichert said she is “prioritizing a proactive focus on retention to understand how we can best retain and achieve our mission with the people we have.”

Missing Paychecks ‘Changed the Story’

The length of the recently ended shutdown—the longest in U.S. history—makes it unique, Jeff Neal told Bloomberg Law.

“What do you do when you miss two paychecks? That kind of changed the nature of the story,” said Neal, who was the Department of Homeland Security’s top HR official under President Barack Obama and is now a senior vice president at management consultant ICF.

If there’s a second shutdown after Feb. 15 because President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress can’t agree on new funding for nine departments and assorted agencies that together employ about 800,000 federal workers, the government’s reputation will take a bigger hit, including among the large number of current employees who are retirement-eligible, Neal said.

“If we have another shutdown, that’s a push toward the doors,” he said. “If we have a debt ceiling issue, or problems with fiscal year 2020 funding, the government is in a world of hurt,” Neal said. He was referring to the likely upcoming debate over the debt ceiling, which Congress must raise periodically to allow the government to continue borrowing money for agency operations, and funding for the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

About 18.2 percent of the federal workforce is fully eligible for retirement, Margot Conrad, director of federal workforce programs at the Washington-based nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, told Bloomberg Law.

Only about 6 percent of federal employees are under age 30, which means there’s a large imbalance between the size of the group that could be leaving federal service soon and their would-be replacements, Conrad said.

Just over 134,000 employees left the federal government between July 2017 and July 2018, including retirements and people leaving the government for other reasons, she said. The latest figures from the Office of Personnel Management aren’t current enough to show the effects of the recent shutdown, Conrad said.

Imbalance Among Generations

The government isn’t prepared for a rush to the exits by retirement-eligible employees, in part because it has so many of them, Neal said.

Federal agencies have about 167,000 employees under age 30, compared with about 296,000 over age 60, Neal said.

“Right now, if you’re thinking about whether government has talent it needs 10 years from now, it doesn’t,” he said. “Those people aren’t there. And given the amount of turnover in the first couple of years among younger employees, you probably hope to have more younger people than older people” for the sake of long-term stability, he said.

Neal said he’s been skeptical of talk of a federal “retirement tsunami” that began in the early 2000s, when a large number of older baby boomers first became eligible to retire. But traumatic events such as the shutdowns and other disruptions could cause a retirement wave that could hurt government operations, he said.

‘Morale Is Low Right Now’

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a Jan. 29 speech that it may take years for the Federal Aviation Administration to recover from disruptions caused by the 35-day shutdown.

A larger number of retirements could cause aviation system slowdowns in the future, Rinaldi said.

“Morale is low right now” among the federal workforce, Conrad said. There’s more talk about leaving because of recent events such as the shutdown, she said.

Greenberg, the NASA scientist, said he’s been at the agency for more than 30 years and is eligible to retire.

“My list of things to do in life is quite long. Will this particular juncture make that more likely? Maybe,” Greenberg said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at