A tsunami of empty desks is about ready to pound Uncle Sam.
Largely due to baby boomer retirements, the federal government is going to lose one-third of its full-time workforce over the next five years, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. That's a staggering 530,000 workers.
In the next two years, Uncle Sam needs to fill the spots of 23,000 nurses, 3,000 air traffic controllers, 63,000 security or law enforcement officials — the list goes on and on.
If that weren't challenging enough, Uncle Sam pays about 23 percent less than the private sector for comparable jobs, according to the Federal Salary Council.
Clearly, Uncle Sam can't afford to alienate talented potential employees.
And that's a reality at the heart of bipartisan congressional legislation to offer partners of gay federal workers the same benefits, including health insurance, provided to spouses of married heterosexuals.
"Non-federal employers have told surveyors that they extend benefits to domestic partners to boost recruitment and retain quality employees — as well as to be fair," says Senate sponsor Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
"Government will always be at a disadvantage in competing for and retaining highly qualified personnel if it cannot match the domestic-partner benefits programs provided by leading non-federal employers," adds Lieberman, pointing out that most Fortune 500 companies — including the Big Three automakers, General Electric, IBM and AT&T — offer partner benefits.
Lieberman notes that the gay former ambassador to Romania quit the State Department over the lack of partner benefits.
"I have felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner — who is my family — and service to my country. That anyone should have to make that choice is ... a shame for the (department) and our country," Lieberman quoted Michael Guest as saying at his farewell ceremony.
Even though domestic partner benefits are both fair and a smart employment practice, Uncle Sam isn't likely to provide them soon unless lawmakers hear from gay and gay-friendly people from back home.
Lawmakers need to know the change isn't expensive: The Congressional Budget Office estimates partner benefits would increase program costs by less than one-half of 1 percent.
So Congress need to take this common-sense step to stop an inequity that hurts gay Americans and Uncle Sam's ability to attract workers.
Most of the nation is ready for this advance. Consider the ABC News-Washington Post poll released Nov. 8 that found Americans, by 55 percent to 42 percent, support "legally recognized civil unions, giving (homosexual couples) the legal rights of married couples in areas such as health insurance, inheritance and pension coverage." Back in 2003, just 40 percent favored civil unions.
Civil unions, which of course are much closer than mere domestic partner benefits to actual marriage, are popular with independents — the swing voting group both parties need: 58 percent favor them. They're embraced even more vigorously by Democrats (66 percent in favor). That should send a strong signal to the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Twenty senators — one-fifth of the Senate — are co-sponsoring the legislation. They include both front-runners in the Democratic presidential race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the lesbian Democrat from Wisconsin, introduced the bill on the House side.
Empty desks need filling. And Uncle Sam needs Congress to lend him a hand by providing partner benefits.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues. To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.