This is not what I signed up for.
December 28, 2012 8:17 AM   Subscribe

About a month ago, I accepted a job with the federal government. The salary was mutually understood to be at the GS-12 level. I just got a call that the job will now be at the GS-9 level due to fiscal cliff issues. What do I do now?

This is especially frustrating since I had declined other job offers (at salaries comparable to the GS-12 level) to accept this one, and I was assured that the fiscal cliff situation was not going to be an issue.

I'm not looking forward to restarting the job hunt again. Should I still take the job? Or should I look elsewhere?
posted by jcatus to Work & Money (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
With D.C. locality pay, at the lowest step, that is a $23,242 difference in salary. The difference increases at higher steps. You've been offered job offers at the higher salary levels elsewhere so it seems like you could probably find a job with a better salary. Plus the way you have been treated stinks. I think you should keep looking.
posted by grouse at 8:23 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Should I still take the job? Or should I look elsewhere?

Are you currently unemployed? If so, why not do both?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:23 AM on December 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Lawyer lawyer lawyer. Unless there's something seriously bizarre about the US Feds, Governments don't reclassify job descriptions based on high-concept issues like "fiscal cliffs".

They're solely based on the content of the job description and whatever point system they use. If they lied to your face and you had other offers on the table, it's time for you to get compensated for your loss.

Do you have the original Job Ad (and, hopefully, job description?) They simply cannot do this..
posted by Yowser at 8:24 AM on December 28, 2012 [12 favorites]

If you can afford it, I'd recommend looking elsewhere. You don't want your first interaction with a new employer to be the cheerful acceptance of a large pay cut. Because if you'll put up with that, what else will you put up with?

And, frankly, the fact that they're trying to pull this with you is not a sign of a healthy work environment to come.

Maybe call those other employers and see if the other job offers are still available...?
posted by JDHarper at 8:26 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Mutually understood" doesn't count for much unless somebody put it in writing. Did they do that?
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:28 AM on December 28, 2012

When you say "mutually understood", do you mean that there was something in the job announcement or in your offer letter stating that this would be at the GS-12 level?
posted by sm1tten at 8:29 AM on December 28, 2012

I have written correspondence that the job would be at the GS 12 level.
posted by jcatus at 8:30 AM on December 28, 2012

I have written correspondence that the job would be at the GS 12 level.

Oh HELL no! In that case, insist that they honor that level, and get a lawyer if they don't.

The Federal Government is tightly regulated and it sounds like someone screwed up big-time. You may need to escallate to get what you're owed, but it will be worth it as the pay grades affect SO MUCH more than just the money you'll make today. Pensions, etc.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:34 AM on December 28, 2012 [16 favorites]

Unless this agency has some exception (possible, but not likely), my impression was that agencies were not necessarily allowed to plan in detail for sequestration until it actually happened. If this an actual Federal position or a contract position? If the former and you applied through USAJobs for a GS-12 level job and then they offered it to you at the GS-12 level, I don't think they legally are able to retroactively downgrade the position without starting an entirely new search.

If I were you, I would ask to speak with legal or someone higher up the HR chain, and I would also advise you to reach out to some of the positions that you declined and see if you can still get one of those. Tell them that your circumstances changed?
posted by aaanastasia at 8:35 AM on December 28, 2012

Congratulations, you now have a job that pays at the GS-9 level. If you want it, start the job. If you don't want it, find another job. This is a horribly unpleasant answer, but it is the truth.

I'm going to be hounded for saying this, but there isn't anything you can do. The thing about pursuing legal action against your employer (be it the government or a company) is that you make yourself incredibly unpalatable to future employers. Sure - they may not explicitly say so - but they know, and they will count it against you. The thing about asserting "[t]hey simply cannot do this" is that it doesn't matter whether they can or can't - you have effectively no good mechanism of enforcing that statement.

Be honest with yourself. You've suffered no direct cost of this demotion. You've been given notice of the demotion, so you have a chance to act accordingly. Your only cost is an opportunity cost, which is hard to define and hard to compensate for. In other words, any legal action would be at best painful.
posted by saeculorum at 8:35 AM on December 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

Also, looking at your other questions, it looks like you have a PhD. Don't take a GS-9 job.
posted by aaanastasia at 8:36 AM on December 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I would certainly at least do some pushing. When I joined the government, I was offered a GS-9 target GS-12 position initially. This later changed to a GS-7 target GS-12. I argued it back up to a GS-9 target GS-12 position.

Unless this is a really tiny agency where everyone in it knows everyone else, I wouldn't worry about arguing becoming some kind of permanent mark against you. I haven't seen the goverment have that kind of institutional memory.

I agree with aaanastasia. If you have a PhD, don't take a GS-9 job.
posted by Quonab at 9:01 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but this just doesn't happen. The position description could possibly have been re-written for a GS-9, but that doesn't happen overnight - and the Federal Govt just doesn't offer you a GS-12 position and then bump it ALL the way down to GS-9.

Something's not right here.
posted by matty at 9:04 AM on December 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Someone suggested that I contact my local congressman. Good idea?
posted by jcatus at 9:06 AM on December 28, 2012

The part that would really bother me is the "I was assured that the fiscal cliff situation was not going to be an issue" part. Everyone has known about the possibility of cuts from the sequestration deal for a long time. If they can't keep their promise on this, then either they don't know what they're doing, or their budget was on shaky footing to begin with.

If I were you, I'd start calling back some of my contacts at those other places you turned down, explain the situation to them, and see if they can still get you in.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:08 AM on December 28, 2012

Step 1: find an employment lawyer and ask them this question. Fax or email them this offer letter. The cost is between free and $500. Do not pass go.
posted by zippy at 9:08 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure you have grounds to actually sue, unless the announcement explicitly says that this job hires at only this level (all of the ones I've seen are usually at least two levels, but perhaps this one is not), and your offer letter explicitly says you are being hired at this level. I would certainly do some pushing.

I think you would do best to consult a lawyer about your options. Also, see if you can get one of those offers back in play.

I wouldn't bother contacting your local congressman. I don't think that it would hurt or help.

Also, if the GS-9 is like, step 10 (meaning, not super far from GS-12, step 1) I might consider it, even with a PhD. I think it depends on how much you want the job, and why.
posted by sm1tten at 9:11 AM on December 28, 2012

Also, looking at your other questions, it looks like you have a PhD. Don't take a GS-9 job.

Unfortunately, there are a lot less Ph.D.-jobs than there are people with Ph.D.s. The number of Ph.D.-jobs dwindles even further for the holder of a political science Ph.D. who doesn't want to work in academia or non-profit organizations. (this is our OP, and I'm surprised she took a federal job) And, a G-9 salary is higher than zero salary. OP can take the job and continue job hunting if she is so inclined.

I agree with saeculorum's comment. And, as Quonab said, OP can try to argue up the salary or get some other sort of concession. Don't lawyer up and for heaven's sake do not involve your congressman. If you want to severely hamper your future employment prospects as you begin your career, involving Congress in your first workplace grievance is a great way to do it.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:14 AM on December 28, 2012

I would not do the congressperson route, which can seem non "professional" (though it's great option for a regular joe with a problem). I would go up the food chain personally with HR and the director level of your agency making inquiries, or I would contact a local federal employment lawyer (who will do the same, albeit with letters).

If you do the first route, I would of course be polite and focus on your written correspondence and the fact that the fiscal cliff will be resolved at some point in the very foreseeable future. You can mention that you had other offers that you declined.

If you do the second route, google your geographic area and then "federal employment law," MSPB, "federal employment," etc. Federal employment law is a specialty area. Do not contact a "regular" employment lawyer. The web site of a federal employment law lawyer or law firm will specifically indicate that they represent federal government workers. Those are the only lawyers you should ask.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:24 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also -- the federal government is a really different beast than another type of employer where it might be verboten to push back or make inquiries before you even start working. In federal employment land, everyone knows that a GS-9 is significantly different from a GS-12. In federal employment land, it would not be strange or at all unprecedented for a person who has been offered and who has accepted a GS-12 job, declining other offers, to make some further polite and professional inquiries if they are precipitously switched to a GS-9 based on a temporary federal budget glitch.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:33 AM on December 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Lawyer lawyer lawyer. . . They simply cannot do this.

Any obvious reason why not? Because I'm not aware of one. Also,

Oh HELL no! In that case, insist that they honor that level, and get a lawyer if they don't.

I mean, good luck with that. We're talking about the federal government here. The government is not like private entities, either as an employer or just in general.

IAAL, and though IANYL and IANA[employment]L, I'm having a really hard time describing a viable cause of action here. They made you an offer, and you accepted it, but unless you've had your start date you aren't actually a federal employee. The rights and protections afforded by statute to federal employees thus don't really pertain to you.

Further, the federal government is generally immune from suit for exercising its discretionary functions, and I think the salaries of yet-to-be-hired employees might well fall under that category. Many federal positions are defined at a range of levels, e.g., GS-5 through GS-8, GS-12 through GS-15, etc. Very few positions only exist at a single GS level. Certainly not the professional-type jobs we're talking about here. If the agency had initially decided to bring you on at GS-12 but the position starts at GS-9, it may well be within its rights to make that change. They couldn't cut your pay after you'd started, but I think they might well be able to do so before you start.

By all means, take this up with a lawyer, but know that (1) if you do file suit, not only will you likely not get this job, but you might find it hard to get a job with the federal government ever again,* and (2) know that from where I'm sitting, the odds of a good outcome for you don't look awesome.

*Sure, overt discrimination on that basis is probably illegal, but there are so many ways of getting around that particular item that it remains a real risk.
posted by valkyryn at 9:41 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

The fiscal cliff thing is hogwash. Somebody fucked up and is using it as cover, hoping that you'll be too confused by the big scary government and big scary "fiscal cliff" to know it; I'd push back if you have written correspondence that it'll be a GS-12 position, and if they don't do that (and you're really qualified for a GS-12 position) walk away. That's a huge difference in salary. Unless you really need the job right now I wouldn't take a job that's $25k and 3 service grades lower than what you're qualified for; that looks pretty questionable on a resume and might make getting into the right level of job harder.

Either someone made a mistake / miscommunication (described the position incorrectly) and is now trying to lie their way out of admitting it, or they're engaging in a conscious bait-and-switch. Either way it's a shady thing to do.

I'd push back hard on them that you're interested in the position at the original GS-12 level, and get a consultation with a lawyer who specializes in government employment / civil service issues. I wouldn't do anything that suggests that you'll take the position at the lower level, or that you'll just walk away quietly (so that they'll just offer it to someone else as a GS-9 position).

It may be difficult to get the position if it was really mis-advertised (meaning they never really had the budget money for a GS-12), but at the very least you should get a straightforward explanation and an apology (and the person responsible will know not to do it again).

After the consult with the employment lawyer you might want to consider going to the Inspector General for the agency in question; I think that might get you better results than going to a Congressperson. The only exception would be if your Congressperson happens to have jurisdiction over that agency via a committee chairmanship or something like that, so that it would be in their own backyard.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:47 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is very odd - was this a position that had a range (9/11/12)? Do you actually have an offer letter?

I would be super surprised if this was actually fiscal cliff related - not saying it's impossible but that sounds off.
posted by pointystick at 9:50 AM on December 28, 2012

This all sounds very fishy to me too, which is why I posted this. Anyway, I talked to a lawyer friend (but not federal employment lawyer), and she said that there's not much I can do except walk away.
posted by jcatus at 9:55 AM on December 28, 2012

I really think the only possible attorney who can advise you is a federal employment law attorney, and particularly one who is familiar with your agency. I can't emphasize that enough (and I am a "regular" employment law attorney who often feels comfortable learning a new area on the fly -- federal employment law is not that kind of area!). The federal government has rules and norms that are very particular (and vary by agency). A federal employment law attorney will understand, for example, about step increases and whether you can negotiate up before starting work, and/or whether you can negotiate for an expedited level increase upon resolution of the fiscal cliff, etc., etc. For me, the difference between a GS-9 and a GS-12 would be enough that I would hire a federal employment lawyer for at least a consult. (If you are in the Northern California Bay Area message me and I will give you some referrals.)

If your position has a union that's another source of information and guidance.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:08 AM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would inquire about promotion potential from the new GS-9 position. If they were planning to hire a GS-12 at the start, then they are clearly looking for a GS-12 level employee. It seems unlikely to me that they would now hire you at a 9 and keep you there indefinitely, unless the position description / duties have changed to a GS-9 level (in that case, perhaps the job is no longer a good fit for you and you should reconsider for other, non-financial reasons).

Did they give you a target grade above GS-9? If so, then the GS-9 salary would only apply for the first year or so, until they can promote you. If not, then it could be that they'd need to re-advertise your position to get you up to a 12, which is more of a pain and less certain to happen.
posted by gueneverey at 10:15 AM on December 28, 2012

Lawyer lawyer lawyer. . . They simply cannot do this. Any obvious reason why not? Because I'm not aware of one.

They have made a promise, and it is documented (in writing). The prospective employee, taking this promise on good faith, has turned down other offers of employment. The offerer of the promise has then reneged on the promise.

Here's the line of reasoning more formally:

Promissory Estoppel

An employer could be estopped from firing an employer, or required to pay damages, if the employee can show the following:

1. The employer made a clear and unambiguous promise of employment;
2. The employee relied on this promise;
3. The employee's reliance was reasonable and foreseeable; and
4. The employee was injured as a result.

posted by zippy at 10:16 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's the line of reasoning more formally:

Promissory Estoppel

Yeah, except promissory estoppel doesn't generally apply against the federal government, particularly in the employment context. The DC Circuit has specifically observed, in an employment case, that "Principles of promissory estoppel apply less broadly against the federal government than they might in situations involving only private actors." McCauley v. Thygerson, 732 F.2d 978 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The courts are specifically worried about administrators and managers making promises or manifesting intentions which are contrary to congressional intent or exceed statutory authority. Similarly, an administrator or manager acting within his authority as defined by the organic statute is not going to be subject to equitable arguments that he can't do the things that Congress has said that he can.

In short, from the way I read the cases, making a promissory estoppel claim in a federal employment case is asking to get dismissed for failure to state a claim.

This is why ClaudiaCenter is correct: before any action is taken towards starting some kind of claim, a federal employment attorney needs to evaluate this case in detail. The facts as stated here are not adequate for even an attorney experienced in this field to offer a definitive opinion. But I can say with complete confidence that analyzing this as if we were talking about a job offer from a private corporation, i.e., walking through the traditional promissory estoppel analysis, is going to lead to an invalid conclusion.

But I would concur with the advice that already seems to have been given: the best move here is likely to either take the job on the government's terms or to walk away. Litigating this is very unlikely to be worth the cost in blood or treasure. The goal here is to get a job that you want. Litigating this case is not going to help with that, even if you win.
posted by valkyryn at 11:08 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Negotiate. This is not the same as lawyering up, although you may want a lawyer on your side. The threat is that you will walk, not that you will sue, the goal is for both sides to be, or appear to be, happy. If you are successful, they will respect you more for asking for more. If you are not successful, time to look at those other offers.
posted by theora55 at 11:40 AM on December 28, 2012

IAAL, IANYL (I used to be employed as a lawyer for the federal government, but not a federal government employment lawyer).

I agree with Valkyryn and Claudia Center - this situation will not be solved by comparing it to a simple offer and acceptance of a job for a regular company, and it will be an uphill battle to fight. It sounds like it is not worth it for you, based on your details.

That said, I and all of my collegues in my little corner of the federal government all took jobs there because we liked the job and working there, with all it meant, knowing full well that our counterparts in the private sector were making literally double what we were making.
posted by Pax at 11:47 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Was it originally advertised as maybe a 9/12 (meaning they might hire at any of those levels)?

I'm afraid there's not much you can do, although I agree that the "fiscal cliff" thing sounds dodgy. There's just not a lot of negotiating you can do with federal jobs. It's take it or leave it. And I've got no direct experience with this, but I'd advise against contacting your congressman...the civil service system exists to make sure that government jobs are not just handed out by congressmen. If you want to talk to anyone, try to find someone at OPM.
posted by JoanArkham at 12:15 PM on December 28, 2012

Don't walk away yet! Fed hiring and hr are, for lack of a better word, weird. ClaudiaCenter is exactly right that everyone would expect you to ask more questions if a gs-12 job suddenly changed to gs-9. Start with your hiring manager and let them navigate the bureaucracy to begin.
posted by yarly at 12:38 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and I disagree with the advice about waking away. You need to try to negotiate first. It is not the same as private employment, but there can be a lot more leeway than it would appear. But you have to have someone advocating for you, which is why you start with your hiring manager who presumably wants to keep you.
posted by yarly at 12:41 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agree with others who said that it matters how the opening was bid. If it was something like 9/11/12 then it's just a difference of where they are starting you out at and you will probably be up to a 12 in a couple of years. Ask your selecting official for clarification on this.

However, if the opening was listed as a straight 12 then there is something hinkey going on and they should have re-bid the position.

Good luck!
posted by weathergal at 4:59 PM on December 28, 2012

You haven't accepted the position yet?

What agency is it in?

There is little recourse legally. Unless you are working the position and then receive a demotion, there isn't a recourse. If there was a discriminatory reason related to you belonging to a protected class which resulted in only your position being classified differently, you may have an EEO case. If you have already taken the position and they demoted you, you have recourse to the MSPB.

Contact me by MeMail, I am a federal employment lawyer. The situation is complex and the facts unstated here will mean a lot.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:11 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

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