Washington DC - The Government Clerks
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
PEOPLE who are unacquainted with department life in Washington are very apt to believe that government clerks, as a general thing, are indolent and improvident— a peculiar set who have obtained office by political favor, who work very little, and spend the liberal salaries they receive in extravagant living. This is a singular but by no means uncommon mistake. Of course there are " black sheep" among the clerks —those who shirk their work, are full of tricks, and are generally dishonorable—but it can be truly said that the majority are industrious, sober, economical, and, without doubt, fully on a par with similar workers in commercial lines. Clerks are required to perform a certain amount of work each day, and the work, when done, will compare favorably with that performed in private business establishments, and may even exceed it in quality and quantity. All of the government work must be done in a methodical, strictly accurate manner, and every imperfection or short-coming is recorded and serves as a bar to promotion, and also as a pretext for dismissal if the position held by the clerk of bad record" is wanted for some one else. In some of the departments the standard of work is set so high, and the quantity required each day is so great, that it is only by the most diligent efforts, by really exhausting labor, that the best of clerks can keep their records entirely free from discredit. The idle and incompetent are constantly being dismissed, unless per-chance they are able to retain their places by means of " strong influence," or by cunning devices which may serve for a time in place of honest, faithful labor.
The department clerks in reality form a solid, intelligent, import-ant part of the population of Washington, and their influence is generally for good. Many are householders, over five thousand, it is estimated, owning comfortable homes of their own, paid for 0ut of their savings, by the help of the greatly beneficial system of cooperative building, and also by the installment plan applied to real estate, which for the past ten years have been much in vogue in Washing.. ton, and which have done a great deal to make it a city of homes owned by those who live in them, like Philadelphia. They are not the aliens they have been represented to be, in any sense of the term. They have aided in the growth of Washington, they take pride in its beauty and prosperity, and large numbers look upon it as their permanent home. If they leave the government service they engage in general business, and some of the most successful merchants and professional men of the city were once department clerks.
There are many veteran clerks. In the Treasury Department there is one who has served since the administration of John Quincy Adams. A clerk in the Navy Department was appointed in 1843, and has given continuous service ever since. Here and there may be found those who can point to a record of ten, twenty, and even thirty years of service.
When one goes into the rooms in the department buildings, and observes the clerks working over great piles of documents with an intense, concentrated energy rarely seen in private business—each room under the vigilant eye of an official—the impression produced is that it is not, after all, such " a very fine thing" to be a government employe of the subordinate class, even if the compensation is liberal. Distance, indeed, lends enchantment to the view of service in the departments. Away from Washington the stories of the large salaries received by government employes for doing what is popularly supposed to be little work in a short day of labor, have a very beguiling effect, and thousands of persons long for positions in the public service, and regard those who obtain them as exceedingly fortunate. It is evident that there are some department positions with a compensation very much out of proportion to the work performed—easy and lucrative places; but a careful inspection of the departments will convince any one that the majority of the clerks and other employes render a full equivalent for their salaries.
A clerk's life is not an entirely roseate one. Promptly at nine o'clock each morning he must be at his desk to begin the day's labor. Until four o'clock in the afternoon the business in each division and bureau goes on steadily, and frequently very rapidly, as in most of the departments the affairs are many months behind by reason of the lack of employes. Officials implore Congress to give them more clerks, in order that they may dispose of the vast accumulation of business in their hands, but the appeals are seldom heeded, and the accumulation continues despite the most earnest efforts to prevent it. Seven hours' confinement over a desk in a close, stifling room ; the difficulty very often of executing the daily task to the satisfaction of a hypercritical official; the "insolence of office," frequently displayed ; the irritating system of watching and " spotting," common in many departments, which causes bitter, indignant feelings ; the rigid, uncompromising adherence to strict rules in one case, and the unblushing favoritism shown in another ; the demand for hours of extra work without extra pay ; the promotions, not from merit, but from ability to fawn and " crook the pregnant hinges of the knee,"—these are some of the thorns on the government rose.
Many men and women thrive in this clerk-life and seem peculiarly adapted to it. They easily shed its irritations and discomforts, they like the short day of labor, and they quickly discover " where thrift may follow fawning." By degrees they ascend to the more lucrative, less restricted positions, and often are able to hold them for a long time. Others, of a different nature, try the life a while, and then retire disgusted, quite willing to work more hours, and even for less salary, in private business, where at least they will be regarded as something more than mere machines to be entirely regulated by official caprice.
There are nearly fifty-six hundred classified clerkships in the departments, and many thousands of ungraded positions. Clerks of the first class receive salaries of $1,200 per year; those of the second class, $1,400 ; those of the third class, $1,600 ; those of the fourth class, $1,800. In the ungraded positions the salaries range from S700 to S1,000. Male clerks usually begin their service for the government at $800 or $1,000, and female clerks at $700, unless they are fortunate enough to secure classified clerkships at once. Chief clerks who rank with officials have salaries from $1,800 to $2,700, and stenographers and translators of foreign languages, from $1,200 to $2,000. Copyists, who are mainly women, receive from $60 to $75 per month. Thirty days in each year are allowed for vacation, during which time the salary is continued, and in case of sickness, certified to by a physician, there is no loss of compensation.
Of course in the government service, as in affairs generally, the majority of the employes have the small places and the burden of work. Hundreds of well-educated clerks who do a great deal of drudgery are glad to get $800 or $1,000 per year, and if eventually they are so fortunate as to be placed on the list of those entitled to draw $1,200, they are happy indeed. The higher, more lucrative places are usually out of their reach, unless they are specially favored, or have distinguished themselves by thoroughly efficient work.