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When Public Servants Cannot Serve

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Amanda L McGimpsey
August 12, 2020

Cities are not immune to the budget impacts of the pandemic recession—and that puts many public workers’ job stability on the line. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released their July 2020 economic news release and found that 8.4% of government workers are currently unemployed compared to just 3.9% unemployed in July 2019. For many public servants, being called to serve the public is more than just a job; it is a passion. So, what happens when public servants cannot serve due to unemployment and what are the impacts on the public, cities and the public servant themselves?

For good reason, most news coverage will focus on the impact of the pandemic recession on the public. The impact of the recession will undoubtedly be devastating to millions of our fellow Americans. A scale of need previously unseen since the great depression will linger until a vaccine has been developed and fully distributed. The public need for government programs will be at an all-time high and require efficiency and innovation to meet the moment. Unfortunately, many cities and counties will struggle with smaller staff and budgets to meet these needs. Some existing programs will see their budgets cut and as a result countless citizens will go underserved. Public administrators may face a growing distrust and dissatisfaction from their citizens as a result of not meeting the needs of the public.

Internally, local governments will be enormously impacted by the pandemic, which will result in short-term and long-term issues. Local governments like cities and counties receive a large portion of their income from either property taxes or sales taxes. With millions of people unemployed, nearly every city in America is experiencing a dramatic tightening of their budgets as more people spend less thus reducing the sales tax income. In the coming months, property tax income may also be impacted as protections for mortgages run out and more properties fall into foreclosure.

Cities and counties have also had to reallocate budgets to develop and support new COVID related programs. As a result, many cities have been forced to cut staff, implement raise freezes and reduce benefits. The long-term impact of these budget changes may also further compound the growing pension liability problem in many United States cities, presenting recruiting and retention issues for years to come.

The subject that is not often covered is what the impact will be on the public servants themselves. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2020 unemployment among government employees is up 4.5% year-over-year for a total of 8.4%. This equates to thousands of government workers not serving the public when the public needs them most.

To many government workers, serving the community is more than just a career—it is a passion. That passion has meant many government workers have passed up more lucrative jobs in the private sector in order to follow their passion of serving the public. However, unemployed government workers may be forced to expand their search to the private sector to find work during these unprecedented times. This will result in a devastating loss of talent and passion in the field of public administration that may be difficult to recover from.

Just as troubling as loosing so much talent is the potential of extreme burnout in the government employees that survive budget cuts. Many are being asked to do more with less—both in budgets as well as staff. The passion that leads many to public service will keep these employees working long hours to serve their community. However, no matter how hard they work there will be thousands of citizens in their community that go underserved, resulting in heart-wrenching stories of poverty and hardship. The public may grow angry at the lack of resources and staff and lash out at these hard-working government employees. Unfortunately, this may mean that some government employees become discouraged and overwhelmed, leading some to lose their passion or seek less stressful careers in other industries.

It is clear that the field of public administration is experiencing unprecedented pressure during the recession brought on by the pandemic. However, the need for these essential government workers is more important than ever. Like many other industries, public administration will face challenges in the months and years ahead. It is important that we hold on to the passion that led us to this field and not become discouraged. In many ways, we are charged with one of the most important duties of our time—to lead our communities through these hardships to a better tomorrow. Stay strong. Be innovative. Serve with passion.


Author: Amanda L McGimpsey is a policy analyst and community advocate focused on creating partnerships to solve complex social issues impacting vulnerable communities. She holds an MPA from San Diego State University and has a decade of experience working in the field of higher education and nonprofits. [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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