Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lesson 3: The bad side of government work

There is no good without bad - no light without dark. I love working for the government, but here are some of the downsides.


As a judicial law clerk, I made only slightly more per year than the job I left to attend law school. I know that state's attorneys, public defenders, etc. don't make much more than that. I didn't expect that I would make very much money at this job, but it has been fine because I have a roommate/husband and less debt than most.

Many government attorneys are being forced to take second jobs as bartenders, waitresses, painters, etc. to make ends meet. (This has been true for years.) It would be much more difficult if I was single, because it's difficult to live on a small salary in the City of Chicago without a roommate.

The salary doesn't bother me that much, because I know I work fewer hours and have a better quality of life than many of my friends in private practice. But every now and then, the vast difference in salaries astounds me: is the work of a biglaw associate worth four to six times what my work is worth, even if we graduated from the same school, earned similar grades, and were both on law review?


Furloughs are a big downside to government work these days. Take our already low salary and give us another 5 to 15 percent pay cut, because that's what furlough is: unpaid leave. The City of Chicago was up to 24 or 25 furlough days per year before they stopped the furlough days earlier this summer - so that's basically like going a whole month without pay. Ouch.

Cook County is requiring employees like me to take 10 furlough days before November, although since I'm leaving far before then and haven't taken any furlough days, I really don't know what's going to happen. (I hope I don't have to take any against my accrued vacation time.)

Politics affect your job

Dave and I have both seen this. Dave's job has been threatened multiple times by government shutdowns in the past six months, and my job is threatened by Cook County budget cuts. The court unions voted about whether to take layoffs or furlough, but my job was affected by that vote even though I'm not in a union.

Everyone hates you

OK, this isn't exactly true, but it kind of is. Everyone thinks government workers are lazy and overpaid (hah!), and I think this is particularly because no one knows exactly what you do. As long as there is food in the grocery, widely available TV and internet, and smooth roads, I don't think the average American really gives a shit about very much.

In the Daley Center, I can tell you that most of the public I meet are friendly and just want some directions or help. But some of them feel totally screwed by the system, and guess who's going to get the brunt of their displeasure? The judge, court clerk, and myself, that's who, even if it's the City of Chicago that took their car away or fined them.

And Dave has been really disheartened by how little the public seemed to care about the government shut-down, even though he helps students every day and brings money back into the government from loans that should not have been disbursed. No one sees what he does, so no one thinks he needs a job.

It can be very disheartening, but I just try to help the people that I can help and make a difference in some lives. The ones that I am able to help are really grateful, and I am always glad when I can make someone's day by reversing a fine that shouldn't have been levied.

And, finally:

Public courthouses are like Soviet Russia

I saved this for last because it's the most humorous, and pretty much speaks for itself. I have no idea how old my computer is at the Daley Center, but let me tell you, it's got some problems. Trying to get office supplies, such as paper, staples, tape, bulletin boards, etc., is like trying to find jeans in Soviet Russia. Every time we need a ream of paper, our office manager sighs and goes around to barter god-knows-what. She comes back with the paper, and we still have no idea where it comes from.

Of course, times are tight, and all businesses are cutting back on office supplies. But in the Daley Center, it can get pretty bad. When the new court calendars came out in 2011, I wasn't able to get one, so one of the seasoned clerks had to go around to his sources to obtain one. A CALENDAR.

Dave's office is bad, too - when their microwave broke, they just pooled together to buy a new one rather than submitting a requisition to Washington, D.C., because apparently the last time this happened, it took them years to get a new microwave. And this is in a branch of the feds that actually brings money back into the government by taking back student loan money!

In short, government work can be hard, but it's still a good lifestyle and very rewarding. I wouldn't have it any other way.

1 comment:

Sara Sherman said...

We actually have "extra" microwaves at our office. Doesn't seem fair....does it?