STORY: I Left My Job After 12 1/2 Years
Posts the past few months have been more than a bit sparse, so I have to apologize to the handful of people that actually read this blog on occasion. If you read the title before clicking through you already know why posts have been so limited but to reiterate ...... after twelve and a half years of service as a United States federal government employee I officially resigned from my position on March 29. I've spent the last few months preparing for my departure and setting up my next career path. I don't want to just close the door on this long chapter of my life and move on though. To be honest for someone of my generation (especially in the current employment climate) having held the same job this is not very common. Honestly I don't really know anyone else my age who's worked for the same entity (and worked the exact same position) for anywhere remotely close to what I have. Needless to say this is a big change for me and it will have a massive impact on how I live my life and how I travel in the future, which is why I'm writing about it here.
But we'll get to that at the end. For now I want to talk a little bit about my time as a Federal Project Officer at the U.S. Department of Labor. Let's start with what I WON'T be missing as a fed....
My cubicle cleaned out and empty on my last day of work.
Getting a federal government job is a bit of a notoriously difficult endevour - there's a ton of rules and regulations governing how one can qualify for a position and navigating that labyrinth makes you want to gouge your own eyes out. Common wisdom says if you don't have some sort of military service background you won't get hired and while having veteran's preference certainly helps I will say that the stereotype is overblown. The stereotype about the federal workforce being filled with older workers is, however, very true. I was brought on board as a 25 year old which made me a good decade younger than the next youngest person in my office at the time. After working there for over a decade I was still the third youngest person in my office upon exiting, and I had moved from 2nd to 3rd within my last year of service. I was actually hired under a special program that targeted young, recent college graduates to incentize young people to enter the federal work force. Under the program I was hired into a position on a two year probationary period and if my performance was solid I would be converted into a permanent employee. Which I'm happy to say happened.
How rare are young faces in federal employment? On my very first business trip as a Project Officer a coworker and I traveled to rural Minnesota for a joint meeting with several of our projects. When we walked into the meeting every single person walked right past me and walked up to my coworker to introduce themselves. When he spoke up to tell everyone that half of the people in the room were actually being managed by me, they all expressed shock - they had assumed I was an intern. It doesn't help that generally speaking people think I'm younger than I actually am. Needless to say I spent my first few years of working at the Department trying to get people to take me seriously, both internally and externally. It took me a long time to finally feel like people didn't see me as a child doing an adult's job.
My age wasn't the only thing working against me at this job. Whatever end of the political spectrum you're on, you likely have made a joke about or have thought negative things about "government employees." Government workers are seen as useless, lazy, and drains on society's tax dollars. You want to bring unity and community back to the US? Just have people rally around their hatred of government employees. You'll have Democrats and Republicans holding hands in no time. People have very little respect for the work federal employees do and that makes them easy targets in political battles. This means Congress is constanty looking for ways to cut funding to agencies, translating into constantly shrinking budgets and even faster decline in head count. Do more with less! The photo above is a picture of my phone I took on my last day of work. It has my mother's cell phone (MOM) and my friend's work number (Justin) programmed into the speed dial, which I did on my very first day of work. In over a decade of working there, my phone was never been replaced or updated despite being broken on multiple fronts and quite dingy and old.
And this is a photo of my computer's keyboard - also never replaced during my 12 1/2 years of service. i did my best to keep it clean and functional but there's only so much a can of air and pulling up keys to scrub can do after so many years of use. You can see many of the keys no longer have their letter-designation any longer. It's so old they simply rubbed away after time, my fingers typing reports and emails and slowly willing them out of existence. My agency has seen about a 50% staffing and resource cut over the past two decades but the amount of work that we're asked to do has remained the same or in some cases drastically increased. The ceiling tiles in our office have collapsed from old age or water leaks on multiple occasions, sometimes missing people underneath by mere feet. There isn't enough money to replace them. Our cubicles and carpet were installed in the 60s and 70s. That's 5 decades worth of dust and grime accumulating and no amount of vacuuming and scrubbing is going to resolve that. Again - there just isn't any money to replace them.
Then there's the "good ole boys" club. Yes - the federal government is often times the enforcing body when it comes to anti-discrimination in society and the American work place. And at the same time, yes, the federal government is also an a slowly adapting and often times archaic work place where older white men often dominate leadership roles and set the tone for the work place. During my probationary period I had a supervisor hire an ESL (English as a second language) instructor to help me with my English language skills. Why? He knew I was half-Japanese and lived in Japan most of my childhood, so he just assumed I would need help to "get on everyone else's level." I met with the teacher and she literally stepped out after 5 minutes to meet with him and ask what exactly he thought my problems were because she was struggling to see an issue. This manager also would ask me why I wasn't eating all my food with chopsticks on a regular basis. When someone told him I was going on a trip to Alaska (where he'd lived for many years) he stopped by my desk to remind me not to pronounce the "L" in "salmon" since, you know, Asians often struggle with that letter. This was all during my two year probationary period so I (incorrectly, in retrospect) said nothing to anyone out of fear I would be fired since my program's terms and conditions clearly outlined that I could be dismissed without notice at any time for any reason. After I was converted to a permanent position we had one more incident - he came into my cubicle after overhearing me tell a coworker I didn't know how to say a word in Thai (I had just returned from Thailand) and said "Oh of course you do, you all sound the same! CHING CHONG BING BONG."
Since I was no longer on probation I felt no trepidation at all explaining to him why what he was saying was super inappropriate and racist and then to get the fuck out of my cubicle. While I had many issues with him they weren't the end of the story over my career. I had many frustrating experiences as a mixed race and openly gay federal employee, and I witnessed many other instances of bigotry and systematic racism happen to other people. We banded together, we filed complaints, but change is slow in a place as big as the federal government.
The exact flag I had to stand in front of on my first day of work and swear to uphold the Constitution and defend the nation against all enemies. It's hardcore.
When I joined the federal workforce I had so many people tell me I had won the lottery because government work was so stable and drama-free. But that wasn't the case. I served under three presidents and as time went on things got progressively more chaotic and unstable. The threat of shutdowns started to loom over everything we did and it was difficult to do work when you didn't know if your agency would have a budget in six months, six weeks, or six hours. I experienced three shutdowns (2013, 2018, 2019) but only the first one had any significant impact on my work and personal life. Still, stable it certainly is not, particularly with the current President.
But it certainly wasn't all bad. In fact, it was almost entirely wonderful. While I'm very happy to be pursuing a new direction in life, I do not say lightly at all that leaving this job and my coworkers behind is by far one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. Serving the people of the United States of America has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Even if we aren't so united right now, and even if so many Americans think the work I did was useless and wasteful.
My job had me traveling to the furthest corners of the American Midwest, places you've probably never heard of it and towns you've never thought about. Places with names like Chadron, Bemidji, and Alpena. As Jennifer Nettles sings, "Little towns with great big lives." Did you know that in the 1930s Portsmouth, Ohio, was the home of an NFL team named the Portsmouth Spartans which eventually moved and became known as the Detroit Lions? Now it's a sleepy town on the banks of the Ohio river with a struggling manufacturing sector and an opoid addiction epidemic. Did you know that the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians have the only closed reservation in the state of Minnesota, meaning all of the land is held in common by the tribe and there is no private property? Despite opening a casino on their land the remoteness of the reservation and systemic racism in the region have held many tribal members in unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. I worked with aviation workers in Wichita, ex-convicts in Toledo, high school drop outs in Detroit, and welders in Des Moines. It was 12 years of trying to help Americans get jobs that would put a roof over their heads and food on the table. I don't really care if some of my fellow citizens think that was a waste of our collective time and tax dollars. I'm proud of the work I did.
But the thing that brings tears to my eyes (even two weeks after my last day) is leaving behind many of the people I've worked with over the years that I've come to consider friends. Like Julie, who went out of her way during my first year in the office to stop by and say hello, invite me to lunch, and show me the ropes at my new job. I'll never forget going with her to a rally here in Chicago for a local politician named Barrack Obama that worked in our office building. He was the junior Senator from the state of Illinois and he had decided he was going to run for President of the United States. A year later, he was our boss. President Obama had a notoriously bad habit of smoking cigarettes that he attempted to kick on a regular basis. It's funny to think that often during my first year working as a fed that I'd walk across the street to Starbucks to get some coffee and on my way back he'd be standing outside the employee entrance having a cigarette and he'd wave and say good morning to me. Whether you liked his political work or not, I can tell you he's friendly and very nice.
Julie was also with me when President Obama's Secretary of Labor came to Chicago and the press took photos and video of us and another coworker meeting with her to discuss our concerns about the direction of our work. While I was cleaning out my desk on a quiet Tuesday afternoon in the office after all my coworkers had gone home for the day, I found the blue AFGE Union button I was wearing in that photo tucked into a drawer, probably having sat there for over 10 years collecting dust. I didn't end up keeping it, but it was one of many things I threw away that day that I held for a little longer while I thought wistfully of the past.
Like the memories I have of my coworker Lisa. Fellow LGBTQ faces can be few and far between in the government (see the good ole boys atmosphere comments above), so i was thrilled when Lisa arrived halfway through my time at the Department. Of course we talked about being LGBT in the federal workforce but mostly it was human stuff - lunch dates to talk about our dating lives or running for coffee on blustry windy Chicago winter days. Sometimes we'd get lucky and we'd be able to go on a business trip together, taking silly photos next to giant buffalo statues as we drove across the northern half of Wisconsin. But by far my fondest memories was on June 25, 2015, when the Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v. Hodges was issued and marriage equality became the law of the land. Lisa was the the person who met me at the back of a conference room filled with over a hundred people watching a presentation on financial regulations and quietly held me as we both cried tears of joy.
Of course there were laughs as well! Like the time my coworker Lorraine and I took a trip to rural Minnesota and the check-in agent at our motel assumed we were a couple and assigned us a single room with a hot tub for our "romantic getaway". On that same trip Lorraine, who is African American, bet me that there were fewer black people in the town we were staying than Asian people and we started a little contest to count the number of black and Asian peole we'd seen that week. By Thursday evening Lorraine was losing by quite a significant number when suddenly she suggested we go to a ....... Chinese buffet. I picked up five more people on my count but still ended up winning by the time we were driving out of town. I never did get to use that hot tub though.
Twelve years of building friendships is a difficult thing to leave behind. There are so many litlte things I remember fondly about my time with so many people in that office. Doing a giant crossword puzzle to clear our minds on difficult work days with Chanel and Mike Jackson (yup, that's really his name). Helping my coworker Timmy buy things on Amazon because he just doesn't understand technology. And also secretly finding out his new cellphone number and texting him pictures of Carl Winslow from the classic 90s sitcom "Family Matters" for over a month because he refused to believe he looked just like him (he does). Chatting for hours back and forth with Malcom Iwho was hired on the same day as me and held his hand over his chest with me in front of that flag) about whatever crazy movie he'd seen on cable TV that week. Barbeques in my backyard with Darren and his wife Talitha during the summer. Talking about my travel adventures with Marium. Seeing the pride in Clay's eyes as he talked about how much he loved his gay son.
I was even accused of killing someone while on the job. But that's a story you'll have to ask me about in person.
When I got married in October I invited a ton of my coworker to attend. I couldn't fathom not having them there on my big day because they've been such an vital part of my life over the past decade. I honestly am heartbroken that I won't get to see their faces and laugh with them about the insanity that is public service on a regular basis. If any of you are reading this I just want you to know that being a public servant was a dream of mine and it was a privledge to work each day in that office. But YOU made it a career that brought me joy, laughter, and happiness. You were an amazing pack of people and my biggest worry about leaving this all behind is that I won't ever have people I enjoy working with as much as I enjoyed working with all of you the past 12 1/2 years. Thank you so much for making my career at the Department some of the best years of my life.
Signing the paperwork to end my career.
So. What's next for me?
Honestly I can't say right now. Yes, I have a plan and yes it's already in motion. There are still moving parts in that plan at the moment though, and they're preventing me from saying exactly where I (hope) I'm heading from here. I'm the type of person that never counts their chickens before they hatch and at this point in time I've got eggs and no chickens. You'll have to wait to see what's coming.
For now I'm enjoying fun-employment and doing what I can to make sure those moving parts in my plan stay in motion. The day after left my job I hopped on a 9 hour direct flight from Chicago to Honolulu and I spent a good 8 days napping on beaches, hiking through Hawaiian mountains, and spending time with friends. I'm going to try to get another post or two up before and, but starting May 1 I'll likely be missing in action on the blog till perhaps mid-July. Those moving parts will finally come to halt around then. I'll still be updating my travel Instagram on a daily basis though, so if you're looking for content you can find it there.
My goal is, of course, to make it through the next few months and continue traveling the world and blogging about all the wonderful and amazing things and people that dot this little blue wonder we call home. In fact, if things go well, my new career path might even allow me to travel more often than I had been at my government job. Time will tell. For now I am just mourning the end of one phase of my life and hopeful that the next one is filled with just as many amazing people and opportunitites as the one I'm leaving.
As always, I wish you happy travels and happiness.