Is It Really That Hard To Get Fired From a Government Job?

Bizarre, Money, NakedLaw

For years, the prevailing notion among job-hunting experts was that, with a government job, it’s almost impossible to get fired.

Of course, we’ve all heard talk radio callers ranting that government employees like to wander into work late, leisurely discuss last night’s Dancing With the Stars with a coworker, then maybe do an hour of actual work before heading out for a 2-hour lunch at Benihana, all the while chuckling at the thought of the helpless taxpayers who cover their salaries.

And honestly, if you’ve ever been to, say, the DMV and stood there in a 2-hour line like some kind of hostage while all but maybe two maddeningly slow workers ignore you, it’s understandable that people might get the idea that a government job is the ultimate cushy gig.

Recently, USA Today added fuel to the outrage by publishing an analysis showing that federal employees are statistically more likely to die of natural causes than to be fired during the tenure of their jobs. Now taxpayers are really angry. So, what’s the actual truth about these supposed government slackers? Can they really get away with virtually anything and still keep their jobs?

The perks of government work

Working for the government has, in fact, traditionally meant real job security, though the pay tends to be lower than in the public sector. Still, it’s common knowledge that, in general, the government tends to grow, which means high job security for those already there, and new jobs for those wanting in.

The USA Today article reported a few mind-boggling statistics, such as the 500,000 federal employees making over $100,000 per year who enjoyed a 99.8% retention rate in 2010. Compare that to the private sector, which fired 3% of workers that same fiscal year (as opposed to .55% of all federal workers).

It’s all in how you read the numbers

An argument can be made, though, that USA Today’s analysis is flawed. HUD spokesman Jerry Brown responded to the study by pointing out that his agency has few firings because, not only do they focus on hiring the right people to begin with, but that they employ a workforce with a higher skill and commitment level.

Unskilled, younger workers skew the numbers for the private sector. This point can be made about the high retention rate of the $100k and above federal workers mentioned above, as well.

Federal workforce experts also point out that many government employees quit before they can be fired, which naturally weeds out lesser performers.

Specialization means security

Among fired government workers, 60% are let go within the first two years, with blue-collar workers twice as likely to be fired than white-collar workers. Senior economist for the Center For American Progress, Heater Boushey, says this is because “many federal workers are highly technical and better educated than the population overall. The government has invested years of training to place them in a very specific job, so they’re much less likely to fire them.”

In fact, the greatest number of government firings took place in food preparation (whereas, for example, no meteorologists were fired), and two-thirds of federal workers who were fired earned less than $50,000 per year.

The fun may be over, anyway

Though government jobs might have been slightly more secure than in the private sector in the past, that is likely coming to an abrupt end. Between the recession and the influence of an extremely tight-fisted Republican Congress, deep cuts are being made even among highly skilled government workers, such as NASA employees. State governments in financial trouble have laid off tens of thousands of workers in an attempt to make up budget deficits without raising taxes, and the federal government will do the same if lawmakers are unwilling to restore taxes to previous levels.

The problem is, not only does this mean major cuts in services that most Americans take for granted, but also that many more real people will be competing with the rest of the unemployed for an inadequate number of private sector jobs. So, no, in 2011, it actually isn’t so hard to get fired from a government job. Especially if the workers are low wage earners and unskilled—those who can least afford to lose a job.