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Sharp drop in federal employment expected

Job LayoffsNational GovernmentUnemployment and LayoffsRetirement PlanningUnions

Federal employment is expected to drop sharply in the span of a decade, government projections show, as budget cuts and retirements begin to reshape the workforce.

While U.S. employment will likely grow nearly 11 percent from 2012 through 2022, federal jobs will shrink by about 14 percent to 2.4 million workers, according to estimates released by the Department of Labor in December. The federal workforce stands to lose 407,000 jobs and see the largest percentage decrease of any service-providing industry.

Economists say that's not surprising, given budget cuts, an approaching wave of retirements and changes in technology.

For some services, "you may not need four people, you may only need two people," said Daraius Irani, executive director of Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.

"It's a natural evolution of the federal government to shrink as technology improves," he said. "With the debt crisis and deficit, that's a trend you'd expect to see. … There may not be the same opportunities for younger workers to enter the federal workforce as 20 years ago."

Maryland is home to more than 300,000 federal workers, who make up about 10 percent of the state's workforce — one of the highest concentrations in the country.

Federal workforce reductions will affect agencies based in Maryland as well as federal contractors that depend on government jobs, said Anirban Basu, head of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm.

But it's conceivable Maryland will lose a smaller share of the federal workforce than the country as a whole, he said, because agencies such as National Security Agency are likely to continue to be well-funded.

The Postal Service will be one of the hardest-hit agencies, projections show, as consumers continue to rely on the Internet and order fewer magazines and catalogs. The agency stands to lose an estimated 169,000 positions — more than 40 percent of lost government jobs.

"We do see declines in occupations in the Postal Service as people use more email and online payments to pay bills, so there's not as much mail volume," said Teri Morisi, branch chief for occupational employment projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The Postal Service is using automated systems to sort mail and also is moving toward more centralized mail delivery, clustered mailboxes and not door-to-door."

Unions that represent postal workers, including those in the greater Baltimore area, believe the Postal Service has been unfairly targeted as a money-losing enterprise. Much of the agency's fiscal woe stems from a congressional requirement that it pre-fund health benefits for future retirees for the next 75 years.

"The postal worker's job is definitely under attack right now," said George Askew, president of the Baltimore-based Local 181 of the American Postal Workers Union. "Any business owner will tell you you can't cut your way to prosperity."

As the workforce is reduced, Askew said, customer service will erode. His local represents 1,400 postal mail process clerks, vehicle drivers and maintenance employees in the Baltimore area.

Reducing services will mean "consolidating postal offices and reducing good-paying postal jobs," he said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics looks at long-term trends every two years. The federal government is one of five sectors expected to have a leaner workforce by the end of the decade. The others are manufacturing, agriculture/forestry, information and utilities.

Manufacturing is expected to lose the most jobs, at 549,000. Overall job expansion will be driven by health care and social assistance, which is projected to account for nearly a third of the growth.

Budget deficits and pressure to reduce government spending are expected to contribute to overall declines, Richard Henderson, an economist in the bureau's occupational statistics and employment projections office, said in a report on the trends.

"The federal government should have been generating surpluses to prepare for a future in which baby boomers are retiring and drawing on federal programs," Basu said. "We fought two major wars and suffered through the Great Recession. Instead of generating fiscal surpluses, the nation finds itself even more buried in debt."

Basu said shrinking the federal workforce, largely through attrition, will be one way for the federal government to reduce future outlays.

"Between retirement and departure for other reasons, there is significant opportunity for the federal government to shrink its payroll without letting anyone go," Basu said.

In general, Basu said, younger workers can expect fewer opportunities for federal careers, including at agencies that have been viewed as some of the world's most prestigious employers.

Cynthia Ennis, president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the federal government's reputation as an employer has already been damaged by a three-year pay freeze, furloughs and increases in health insurance premiums.

The AFGE represents workers at the Social Security Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Veterans Administration hospitals and Fort Meade.

The Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, where more than 10,000 workers have left and not been replaced over the past few years, already feels the sting, Ennis said.

"The impact here at Social Security has been devastating," Ennis said. "Now you need one person to do three people's jobs, and it's a lack of public service. To me the danger is the service we provide to the public."

Askew, of the postal workers union, says cutting back on door-to-door delivery would hurt communities, in particular senior citizens who rely on mail-order prescriptions. Unions object to a pilot program underway in four states in which retail postal services are being offered at Staples office supply stores but staffed by store workers instead of postal employees.

"The threat would be if that continues and spreads throughout the country, the next step will be to consolidate and start closing down post offices," Askew said. "The community needs the services of a post office, especially in rural areas."

The impact of a smaller government workforce will vary by agency, but "you're going to see the public affected," said Jessica Klement, lobbyist for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. "Tax returns will take longer to be processed. The lines at airports may be longer.

"There will be members of Congress saying federal government is bloated … but this is absent a conversation about what our government should be doing," Klement said. "Federal employees are doing jobs that Congress has tasked them with."

The strategy, Klement argues, should be to determine "what we want from government, then staffing it accordingly."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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