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Who Moved My Velveeta?

Last Friday, on a Furlough Friday no less, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed that, instead of furloughs and a 14 percent and change pay cut, state workers take a 10 percent pay cut and no furloughs, citing his growing concern that the furloughs might not be legal (Ya think? Gee, what was your first clue?). My initial response was, to borrow a line from a Schwarzenegger movie, “Fuck you, asshole!” I thought, “He must think I’m Boo Boo the Fool – that I’m going to take a pay cut AND continue to work the same number of hours like nothing’s changed when the legality of the first pay cut is still in question? I don’t think so. Homie don’t play that.”

My dear, sweet sister, the Writing Diva, has expressed her concern for my situation on her blog. Not only do I work for a general fund state agency (those most at the mercy of layoffs and the like), but I have the least amount of seniority in my classification within my agency and I’m third from the bottom in the entire agency in terms of seniority. If layoffs come, I’m screwed and tattooed. I discussed my sister’s concerns for my job security with BMNB, and he was quick to allay her/my fears. “Oh, no, we’re licensed professionals – that means we’ve got a license to go make some money. If the state acts funny, you can go do contract work. You’d make more money doing contract work than you would working for the state, anyway. Or you can go work for the feds – they pay more. Worse comes to worse, we’ll just go back to Colorado. We’ve got options.”

Can you see why I love this man?

After discussing the Governor’s proposal with my state worker siblings and unleashing a steady stream of profane language at the Governor’s unwillingness to avail himself of all the LEGAL options to reduce the state payroll – golden handshakes, hard hiring freezes, reducing all boards to necessary quorums -- I thought back to a book I’d read a long time ago and it hit me:

He’s moved my Velveeta.

I haven’t been in state service long enough to know whether Spencer Johnson’s “Who Moved My Cheese?” became required reading for state workers as it was for private sector employees a decade ago. It’s a fable about two mice and two Littlepeople (the term in the book, not mine) and how they react to change. The mice and the Littlepeople get up every morning, put on their running shoes and jogging suits, and walk through a maze to find cheese, which just happens to be in abundance in Cheese Station C. The mice, Sniff and Scurry, never assume the cheese will always be in Cheese Station C, so they keep their running shoes tied around their necks and their jogging suits on, and they continue to monitor how much cheese there is or isn’t every day while they dine on it. The Littlepeople, Hem and Haw, get comfortable with the cheese always being there to the point that they expect the cheese to always be there. They stop keeping their running shoes tied around their necks and they hang up their jogging suits. Why not? There’s cheese in abundance.

Then, one day, the cheese is gone. How Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw react to the loss of cheese is the lesson in dealing with change. I won’t ruin the story for you, but there’s much to learn about change, and fear of change, from it. The cheese, as you can guess, is a metaphor for what motivates you – job security, success, pay, etc. In state service, the cheese is definitely Velveeta – work with lower pay relative not only to private industry but to other government agencies, with difficulty in advancing and getting training, in exchange for better benefits, job security and regular pay. Well, the “Velveeta” has been moved – job security and regular pay are definitely on the chopping block.

I’m not in control of the state budget. I’m not in control of my union. I’m not in control of the judges who will rule on the numerous furlough law suits and, possibly, the pay cut law suits to come.

What I am in control of is how I react to the shifting career sands under my feet. And, perhaps unbeknownst to my dear sister, I’ve been “sniffing” and “scurrying” in anticipation of these changes to the state work force.

I truly believe that the state worker life of my parents’ generation is going to be no more. I foresee a decrease, if not total elimination, of pensions. I see seniority going by the wayside in exchange for job security for the most productive state workers. If the state were truly innovative, it would trash the entire civil service exam system and hire, promote, and fire much like the private sector – a results-oriented approach to human resources. The problem is that those at the top – the appointed folks and the CEAs – don’t want metrics, goals, and consequences like those in the private industry. So there will be two standards – one for those at the top, and a tougher, results-and-production-oriented standard for those on the bottom.

I don’t intend to stay at the bottom. By that, I mean I don’t intend to be at the mercy, financially or otherwise, of those at the top.

Like Sniff, I’ve been sniffing out the coming changes, and like Scurry, I’ve been planning accordingly. I met with a CalPERS representative to find the best way to get service credit and, as a result, the most in pension payments and healthcare benefits in retirement, for the least amount of hard time (time actually working) and money. I set my retirement date from state service, or any CalPERS entity for that matter, based on that information. I’m in Tier 1, so as soon as I vest (I’ll have five years of service credit on May 1), I’ll buy another five years’ service credit at my salary now, which will be the lowest cost assuming that one day salaries will increase. I will possibly do another fifteen years and retire after 20 years of service and an additional 5 years of purchased service credit for a pension benefit of 50% of my average salary for the 3 highest earning years in state service, plus health care benefits. That’s assuming I stick with state service and that the pension and benefits formula stay the same, and I don’t make that assumption; I just make sure I know the best option if it does. In either event, I intend to hang on in state civil service until I vest, since I doubt the state can adopt a budget fast enough or send me a pink slip fast enough to lay me off before May 1. The state doesn’t work that fast. And even if it did, there’s always contract work until I can return to state service and vest.

Like Haw, I’ve asked myself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” and planned accordingly. I’ve been working to expand my knowledge in my small legal field and in other legal fields I find interesting in order to make myself more marketable in the event I do get laid off. I’ve also been studying to take another licensing exam that I won't discuss, and I’m contemplating taking the Colorado bar exam just in case BMNB and I decide to move back to Colorado. A bookstore near where I work is going out of business, and I’ve been stocking up on professional licensing exam books and the like at 50-60 percent discounts. I’m also thinking of doing some teaching on the side now that I’ve had a nice long break from it, and I will be looking into the ethics of returning to the private sector and using what I’ve learned in state government to represent clients before my agency. And I’m still working on my writing and publishing. In other words, I don’t assume that my Velveeta won’t be moved. In fact, I not only assume that the Governor AND the Legislature will move my Velveeta; I assume that I will need to go out and find some new and better Velveeta outside of and in addition to state service Velveeta.

All I know is that I long ago tired of being afraid of what was going to happen – what the Governor and the Legislature were going to do to state workers -- and decided to take control of the one thing I could control – my own human capital. And once I did, I felt a whole lot better. The Writing Diva need not worry.

And when this all shakes out, I fully intend to enjoy some wine with my Velveeta.


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