When people think about Washington, D.C., they think about politics, the White House, Congress, and maybe the federal government, the latter possibly in the most abstract term. That’s because most people are not familiar with agencies that make up our government, let alone the people who work at these agencies to keep our government running, mostly behind the scenes.
Even fewer people know about the D.C. government. When you visit our nation’s capital, it’s the D.C. government that takes care of the pavement you walk on, the buses you take, any medical emergency service you may need. It makes sure the water you drink is clean, the restaurants you eat at meet sanitary standards, the elevators you ride on are inspected. The D.C. government does community planning, provides transportation to the school systems, and the list goes on.
We sat down with a group of federal and D.C. government workers represented by AFGE District 14 and asked them about their jobs, what people get wrong, what they wish people knew, and what they love most about their jobs. You’ll be happy to learn that overwhelmingly the best part of their jobs is to help others and make a difference.
Carter has been providing administrative support at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) for almost 13 years. She initially joined the public service because she wanted more structure in her career than what she got from her previous private-sector job. CSOSA’s mission is closely related to public safety, and Carter is proud to be a part of it.
She believes the government plays a major role in the standard of living for citizens, and it’s just as demanding as the private industry in many areas of work.
“I hear people say that government work is easy desk work. Government workers have acquired various skills through higher education and/or trade to aid in the knowledge of their jobs,” she said when asked what people misunderstand about government work. “At the end of the day, the work I do contributes to a larger purpose. Administrative support provides assistance to internal and external customers to achieve the mission of the agency.”
Her job has changed over the years because technology has evolved and the needs of the population they serve have changed. But she said the agency adjusted itself to ensure that the employees have what's needed to complete the essential functions of the job.
Carter is president-elect of AFGE Local 727.
Quattlebaum has worked in the government for 27 years. As a civil engineer technician at the D.C. Water, his job is to inspect water and sewer construction and rehabilitation in the District of Columbia.
He initially went into government for stability but later loves the fact that his job allows him to meet new and interesting people all the time.
“I wish people knew that government work is about camaraderie and the relationships you build,” said Quattlebaum, who is also chief steward of AFGE Local 631. “Some people may misunderstand how involved public service/government work can really be.”
Gamble has been working as a program manager for the Office of Unemployment Insurance at the Department of Labor for 14 years. She chose to go into the federal government as an extension of her military service. It also gives her a way to help those who need assistance.
“The best part of my job is being able to assist employees and make a difference in their lives when they feel like they have nowhere else to turn to resolve matters that they may consider a crisis,” she explained.
Gamble, who is also president of Local 12, said there is a misunderstanding that public service and government work do not have a means of holding their employees to standards like private-private sector employees. This cannot be farther from the truth. In the government, the organization’s culture plays a significant role in how the government is run. There is significantly more accountability in many instances because the work is always in the public eye.
Asked what she wishes people knew about government work, she said, “I wish people knew government work is not just a cushy job like some may believe. Working in the federal government is hard, especially when you work for an agency that sets the rules and regulations for workplaces all around the country. Government work is always under the spotlight, which adds to many government employees’ stress. I also wish people knew that government work does not pay what it is worth, so those who do government work do it out of dedication to their country.”
People often mention “government bureaucracy” as a dirty word, but Gamble said bureaucracy has its own purpose.
“More times than not, when the words government bureaucracy is uttered, there is a vision of hierarchies, formality, an inflexible division of labor, and strict policies that provide consequences to those who disobey. However, I, on the other hand, do not see it as being wrong. When I hear government bureaucracy, I think of accountability, predictability, structure, and job security. Furthermore, a bureaucratic culture is based on impersonal relationships, discouraging favoritism. In this kind of organization, everyone has the same chance to succeed,” she explained.
Gamble is president of Local 12 and also serves as the local's veterans coordinator and fair practice coordinator.
Johnson has been working for the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) in the Property Maintenance Operation Division for 22 years. Although Johnson works for the D.C. Housing Authority, he is the union president for bargaining unit employees who fall under D.C. Department of Housing, D.C. Housing Authority, D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, D.C. Department of Environment and Energy, D.C. Office of State Superintendent of Education, and D.C. Department of Regulatory Affairs.
The best part of his job is serving the citizens of the District of Columbia where he was born and raised.
“I’m a Washingtonian and nothing is no more pleasing than helping my own community to strive,” said Johnson, who is also president of Local 2725 and its fair practice coordinator.
Johnson said working for DC Housing Authority can be a little challenging some days due to the nature of the environment in which he works in. Not only do you have to have a good work ethic, you must know how to interact with people who have different social backgrounds.
He wants people to know that public servants are hard workers and very flexible to the environment in which they are forced to work in.
“For example, in public housing the environment may require you to work in dangerous and uncomfortable situations, but we must show up and provide excellent customer service to all!” he explained.
Bryant-Cunningham has been working for the federal government for 26 years. She began her federal career at the U.S. Social Security Administration. In 2012, she transferred to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Being in government for nearly three decades, Bryant-Cunningham has seen it all, including when government employees are being scapegoated for what goes wrong within federal agencies, which makes union work vital for employees.
When asked what she wishes people knew about government work, she responded it’s not for the faint at heart.
“It’s critical work,” added Bryant-Cunningham, who is also president of Local 32. “People misunderstand the levels to which we work. We are not lazy and often go above and beyond with no extra pay to do what’s required when getting the job done.”
Jackson, who is president of Local 1831, has been working for the federal government for eight years. First she joined the rest of her family in the Smithsonian Institution and then transferred to the National Gallery of Art where she is today. The best part of her job is seeing children come to the gallery for visits.
“I wish that people knew how hard the employees work to maintain the gallery and to make sure they have a safe and clean place for them when they visit,” she said.
Being president of the local that represents NGA employees, Jackson said she has a different understanding of how the building runs from management perspective and from bargaining unit perspective.
“I feel that a lot has changed in me from being a union president. I found that I love the passion to fight for fairness,” she added.
Snow started working in the government in 1996. He went into government because he has always enjoyed working with the public to help make things better. He currently provides prosthetic services to veterans at the Washington DC VA Medical Center. The best part of his job is being able to help enhance the lives of our nation’s heroes.
Snow said government work is often difficult because government is the backbone for everything else. The role of government employees, for example, is essential to the functioning of private sector.
When asked what he wishes people knew about government work, Snow, who is president of Local 2798, said, “Most federal employees are do not receive high salaries. Health benefits are not as good as some offered in the private sector. Federal employees work hard to provide service to the public.”
With the current administration, the agency has been reluctant to acknowledge the union rights of the employees that were taken away during the previous administration. That reluctance makes it harder to protect and represent the employees.
Silberstein has been a mathematical statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau for 25 years. He joined the public service because he wanted to make a difference.
“The government has an obligation to serve the public and I have always been proud to do that,” he said. “Many people have little appreciation for how hard many of us actually work and believe we are overpaid compared to the private sector. The hard work we do is way underappreciated and quite often people in the private organizations earn comparatively far more.”
As chair of the National Fair Practices Affirmative Action Coordinators Subcommittee and a member of the EEO and Representation Subcommittee, Silberstein works to make sure the members in District 14 are properly informed of their EEO rights via regular trainings and consultation. He loves it when he can make a difference and help people get the justice and fairness they deserve and not just rolled over by government managers.
Silberstein, who is also chief shop steward and fair practices coordinator for Local 2782, said his job has changed in many ways since he first started. Technology has created the most significant changes for all and certainly in the government.
“I believe that has generally proved very helpful and especially when COVID hit, most were able to show they can work effectively from home. We are also shifting away from paper to electronic media now,” he explained. “In the EEO world where I do much of my representation and advocacy, I have seen far more respect in the courts for disability protections and that has in principle been largely due to evolving law like the ADA, the ADAAA. Also, changes vary greatly as administrations change and as Congress and the courts change as well.”
Asked about government bureaucracy, Silberstein said sometimes it's very bad and slow to change but sometimes it's actually protective.
“Sometimes bureaucracy gets a bad rap. Many complain the government has too many checks and balances built into the system, but they often fail to realize that in the private world, an employee can be dismissed on the spot, whereas in the federal government and especially in the unions, employees have due process rights that allow the unions protections.”
Chong was born in South Korea and became a naturalized American citizen at age 19. In Korea, being a federal civil servant is one of the most highly regarded professions, and he knew that when he graduated college, he wanted to be a federal civil servant in some capacity. It wasn't until he graduated law school when he realized the best way to do so was becoming what William & Mary Law School called a "citizen lawyer."
So he joined the Social Security Administration in August 2010, two months after he and his wife got engaged. A year later, they got married and a year after that, their first son was born. Working in the federal government has afforded him a quality work-life balance that allows him to be there for his wife, their two sons, and their pandemic puppy.
But the best part of his job is being able to serve the American public. Although his specific position does not have a public contact component, the work that he does every day helps those who are looking for an answer from his agency as quickly and efficiently as possible.
He wishes people knew that federal government workers do not do this work to become rich.
“Rank and file employees are not the so-called "fat cat bureaucrats" and many of us could leave federal service for better paying opportunities, but we choose to stay in our jobs to help the American public,” said Chong, who serves as president of Local 3615, representing SSA employees in Falls Church, Va.
When asked about government bureaucracy, he said it can be bad, but it’s also a necessary evil because the larger the agency, the more levels there are due to the budgets and number of personnel involved.
“The private sector can be more nimble, but decisions can also be made by one person, who may not have others' best interest at heart,” he explained. “I completely understand that the "red tape" around many agencies can be daunting, but in some ways, I believe that this checks and balances system is good for transparency in public funds.”
Townsend has worked in government for 16 years. Working at the Soldier Recovery Unit (formerly Wounded Warrior Battalion), Townsend is able to see the immediate impact her work has on the lives of wounded soldiers and their families, which is the best part of her job.
“I come from a military family. My mother, father and brothers are all disabled veterans. My son and nephew are both currently active duty. Working in the federal government was initially my way of serving and supporting our military and veterans,” she said. “Now, it's also to contribute to the greater impact of our society, to help promote women's rights, employee rights to have a voice.”
Townsend, who’s president of AFGE 1052, wants the American people to know that government workers are working tirelessly to keep this country going. She said people misunderstood that government workers are all highly paid and can't relate with the private sector.
“We are just like the private sector, working hard to support ourselves and our families every day,” she explained. “Some of us are underpaid and work overtime to make ends meet. The only difference is that our work impacts us all on a global scale.”