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Analysis: Stop Calling Federal Employees 'Nonessential'

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Federal workers say they are essential, whether they are furloughed or not.
Victoria Pickering: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/4607909002/
Federal workers say they are essential, whether they are furloughed or not.

As the partial government shutdown continues, several thousand federal employees and contractors who have been furloughed are suffering the emotional toil of being barred from the work that they love. Some say they're also feeling the sting of being called "nonessential." The term is often used to distinguish between those who are on furlough from those who have to continue working. In response to a WAMU query about the shutdown, one listener called the term "nonessential" a slap in the face to federal workers. That prompted us to think more carefully about the language used during the government shutdown.

Max Stier is the President and CEO of the non-profit Partnership for Public Service weighs in on the distinction.

Workers have been called nonessential, essential, excepted, non-emergency retained. What's the appropriate terminology?

"Excepted and non-excepted. And you are great to be listening to your listeners. The listener was right, essential/non-essential is neither accurate nor fair to the many many federal workers who are not being permitted to work who are in fact quite essential to the country.

It comes down to that fact that, if we're using the strict meaning of the word essential.

"Connotation, denotation. The choice of words mean more than you might find in the dictionary. As your listener suggested, it's offensive. Lots of federal employees are being crushed. They're being crushed because they care about their mission and they're not being allowed to do their job, nor are they being paid. So it's a very challenging world for them. To be called "nonessential" is taking air out of the balloon ever further. So it's not correct and it's not helpful."

If we look at this deeper, I suppose the people who have assigned these terminologies, it was not meant to be offensive but was just careless.

"Correct, no need to impugn intent, but words do matter. We did a poll several years ago asking the public what people thought of federal public employees, and 71 percent had a positive view of federal employees. When we asked them about federal bureaucrats, that number dropped to 20 percent. So you saw a 52 percent change simply in the use of the word. So choice of the word is important too — don't use the word bureaucrats either."

We've heard from listeners who have expressed frustration and anger amongst federal employees. How long do you think these emotions hang around even after the shutdown is lifted?

"I think they hang around for quite some time. I think one of the real challenges for federal leaders will be that they need to re-recruit their workforce. They need to come in understanding that they can't assume it's business as usual when things start up again. They need to make sure that their employees understand why they're valued, that they are valued and that their presence in government really matters. They have to come back to mission, because that's why people are here."

How might they do that? Meetings? Retreats?

"The starting point is to understand that that is a priority and to communicate to the workforce and show it. And to understand that they're not being taken for granted. And not to believe that it's something that you say once and you're done with it. It's going to be a long rebuild if we're going to do this right."

How much of an obstacle is this uncertainty to encouraging the next generation of leaders in public service?

"It's a huge obstacle. It's not an incident in isolation. You've had several years now where federal employees are the punching bag during partisan discourse. They've had three years now of pay freezes. They've also seen both the sequestration and furloughs associated with that, as well as the shutdown right now. This is a long series of problems, and we're not going to get ourselves out of this hole very quickly. We're chasing talent inside government away, and we're preventing great people from wanting to get in."

We learned about the subject of this story through WAMU's Public Insight Network. Learn more about the Public Insight Network.

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