Here’s the choice: Money or quality of life. Maybe not much of a choice if getting a smaller salary in return for a less hectic environment would actually be stressful. Whatever, work-at-home feds may soon have to decide whether and when to return to the office. Or, in a perfect world, maybe consider where they’d locate if Uncle Sam said they could do their jobs from anywhere. More and more private companies are doing it. Or will adopt the practice. Something to think about: Given the choice, would you give up ten of thousands of salary dollars now, and take a reduced Civil Service Retirement System or Federal Employees Retirement System annuity later — for life — if it meant you could telework from the geographic location of your choice?
Earlier this week the New York Stock Exchange announced that some work-from home employees who had been brought back to the office this summer will be returning to their home work stations because of the jump in COVID-19 cases. Many had worked from home since March, then come back in June or July, only to be sent back home in December. Food for thought about your future? So given the uncertain nature of workplace locations, what if you could do your federal job sans traffic, and live miles away from a city or suburb you now call home that could turn into a COVID-19 petri dish, and where traffic, crime and prices — from housing to food — are not likely to get better?
Maybe do your job from a place of your choosing for your family in a nicer, laid back community?
Maybe a place where community service organizations, rather than extremist groups, drive the local conversation?
What if you could opt to do the federal job you now perform in Manhattan, or suburban Los Angeles or downtown Houston either from a laid back office in the Ozarks, a small town near the ocean or in a smaller, people-oriented community where rush hour is an 11-minute ordeal?
This is not science fiction. It may be one of the options to consider as the nation, and both federal and private offices decide what work life will be like if and when the current pandemic is beaten, made less serious or replaced by something worse.
Hundreds of thousands of people who never thought they would work anywhere other than an office are now adjusting to work-from-home. While there are many complaints about cramped lifestyles, lack of group contact, not to mention too much spouse or significant other time, many like it. Some love it and can’t imagine ever returning to the office on a full-time basis or a majority of the time. Many say that they are getting more work done from home than they ever did from the office, and that it is better quality and often quicker delivery.
When/if the pandemic recedes, some maybe most agencies will begin encouraging workers to voluntarily return to the old 9-to-5 workspace, the need to work from home — and its apparent success — has put a major dent in efforts at places like the Social Security Administration, Interior Department and other agencies to curtail or eliminate teleworking — either to benefit customers and taxpayers or to punish federal unions. Others may take a tip from the private sector and let workers pick their homebase.
A growing number of private companies are allowing and encouraging top employees to work from home. I personally know people working in New Orleans, Bellingham, Washington; Colorado Springs, Portland, Maine; Minneapolis and from a Winnebago in Nebraska whose home offices are in Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle. In most cases the workers get the same salary they did or would have at the home office, at least for now. That’s even though many live in a much lower cost area that they, not their employer, chose.
Pensions for the private sector workers are not an issue because their companies don’t offer them. But pay could become an issue and the value of lifetime retirement benefits, which for feds are linked to pay and longevity, are becoming an area of major concern. That is — if Uncle Sam encourages or allows workers to do their thing not from the home office but from a place of their choice.
White collar feds are paid under a locality system. The government determines what private sector wage rates are for similar jobs and then gives workers annual raises accordingly, at least on paper. While the bipartisan Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 has never been fully or appropriately implemented it is what is used today and what the 2021 pay raise, if any, will be based on. Decades of locality pay raises have produced a wide variety of salaries for feds. The differences are based on hometown private sector pay. As a result, feds in some places get paid a lot more and will get bigger pensions than their counterparts in other parts of the country.
For example, consider a mid-career GS-12, step 5 employee in Houston, Texas, makes about $13,000 a year more than his or her counterpart in cities in RUS (rest of U.S.) pay zone. Over time that means a much greater annuity difference. And lots of extra salary dollars just because of your ZIP code.
So would you do it? Either way. Would you move from RUS to a similar job in DC, New York City, Houston or San Francisco. Or, If it became more normal for people to chose their workplace, would you give up the Kennedy Center, or Broadway or the Golden Gate Bridge for a simpler lifestyle, less money and reduced pensions in a place where Friday night lights — when they return — is the social event of the week?