I am a civil servant. I’ve only officially been a state employee for 9 months, but I’ve worked on contract for state agencies for almost all of the thirteen years since I graduated college.
I’ve spent my career protecting the public at California’s Environmental Protection Agency and their Department of Public Health. I’ve helped list “chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm.” I’ve helped to “undo tobacco addiction.” I’ve encouraged kids to eat “5 fruits and vegetables a day.” And I currently help prepare California for a flu pandemic or bioterrorism attack.
But when I tell people I work for the state, their reactions tend toward the negative. Some assume my job is easy. Some are angry that I’m paid with their tax dollars. Some call us Nazis, be it the smoking or the food variety. But it’s very rare that someone says “Gosh…thanks for doing what you do!”
People seem to appreciate firefighters, soldiers and police officers, but the rest of us civil servants seem to be painted with a broad stroke as lazy, inefficient, and unhelpful. The letters to the editor in my local newspaper are often angry and hateful. Much of this anger is a product of the economy, but I believe some of it has simmered for years.
My governor, Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, recently sent notices of potential layoffs to me and 20,000 of my colleagues. He’s furloughed us two days a month without pay. Last year, he attempted to reduce our salaries to minimum wage. It seems that even my childhood action hero values me as little as legally possible.
A friends once asked me why my colleagues and I often work late, since, in his words “it’s not like you have a profit margin you have to meet.” I told him, in far less eloquent terms, that I work late because of something more important than a profit margin. I work late because I believe the health and well-being of my friends and neighbors is at stake. I work late because I believe in making the world a healthier, safer place for people.
Are there lazy civil servants? Absolutely. Lazy employees exist in every large organization, public or private. But for every lazy civil servant, there’s a dozen of us who have to work even harder to pick up the slack.
I can understand the anger. People are searching for someone to blame for their financial situation (and it’s hard to hate a “crisis of liquidity”). And not only is my job seen as more secure than theirs, but I’m paid with their tax dollars. But I hope, in writing this, I can remind them that I am just a person, trying to do something good for society. And for this, I believe civil servants deserve to be appreciated more by the public we try so hard to serve. And I do believe the world is a better place because of what we do.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.