By Jamie Bence • November 29, 2011•Politics and Government
Heidi Finger began her career at the Department of Labor after graduating from Wellesley College, and returned as an attorney after attending American University's Washington College of Law. She has litigated for the department on many issues including employment discrimination, fair labor standards and equal pay. Heidi retired from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in 2005, after serving in numerous capacities for the Department.
How did you come to work for the Department of Labor? I think it was all a lot of serendipity. When I first graduated from college, there were many fewer opportunities for women at that time then there are now. I gravitated to the government as a place that was open to me. I started in the Wage and Hour Division, enforcing minimum wage and overtime. They had a program that was brand new called the Equal Pay Act (now EEOC enforced) which was at the time tied to the Fair Labor Standards Act in DOL. I was lucky that the program had the only woman supervisor in the whole Department of Labor. It was a great opportunity and it was meaningful to me.
From there, I worked for a number of years. A friend of mine's husband was going to law school part time and he suggested I should go. I'd never thought about it before, but he thought I'd do well. I applied where he had gone, American University's Washington College of Law. I had been out of school for seven years at that time, and in the interim there had been a lot of grade inflation. I thought I would be fine applying with my grades, but I wasn't. I ended up on the waiting list. Our friend encouraged me to go to the school and speak to the dean, and tell him that I'd be happy to go even if I got in at the last minute, since I was local. Sure enough, two weeks before law school started, they called me, and I gave my two weeks notice.
I loved law school, but I had never thought about that as something to study. By the time I graduated, it was my ten year reunion from Wellesley. Having a break in my education was beneficial because I wasn't tired from school and I had a lot of practical experience in things that would otherwise seem hypothetical in law school.
I thought when I graduated that I'd like to have a clerkship with a federal judge. My income tax teacher was a Wellesley graduate, and recommended me to a particular judge. However, that fell through. The judge and I got along great but he was reluctant to hire me because I was married and was not sure if I could work the hours required of a clerk. At the last minute, I had no job, so I took a look back at the Department of Labor. It turned out their were hiring in the Solicitor's Office in the Fair Labor Standards Division, the counterpart to where I worked after I had graduated from college. It was a very good fit. I could pick up looking at the Fair Pay Act from the legal point of view instead of the investigative point of view. The woman in charge of our division moved on to become the Solicitor of Labor. She was a great, wonderful person to have supervising me.
How did you move over to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? There was some government reorganization, and the Equal Pay Act moved over to EEOC. At that point, I moved to the civil rights division which enforced nondiscrimination in government contracts. That continued my interest in equal employment opportunities and civil rights. The difference in working in the Equal Pay Act are was moving to administrative courts, but otherwise the same rules of procedure applied. I got to be a trial lawyer, which I never planned or expected to do. I enjoyed it. I did one trial in Jacksonville, Florida where I worked round the clock and spent months there. I had a young son at that time. I kept thinking about that judge who told me he thought I couldn't work the hours because I was married. I would have loved to go back and tell him how many hours I'd been working.
I have no regrets about spending my career at the Department of Labor. I had interesting promotional opportunities and travel for my job. When I had my first child, I wanted to take a year of maternity leave, and my boss in the civil rights division said he thought that was unprofessional, even though the union contract provided that as an option (not all paid, but I was supposed to be able to take it). I was shocked that somebody who worked in the forefront of the civil rights division wouldn't give me what I was entitled to. I filed a complaint with the union, and they negotiated what I wanted-- one year of leave, and the right to the same job I had left. I eventually smoothed things over with that boss, and he promoted me to be a supervisor of litigation.
What do you think was the most challenging or dynamic part of your work? How did this impact your work-life balance? The one thing about the civil rights field is that it's always changing, depending on the Supreme Court. Over the one year that I was away, there were various court decisions and developments, and it took me a while to catch up. My husband thought maybe I would just want to retire and stay home, after I had a child at 41. I was so exhausted after that year at home, I realized I would be less tired going to work. We signed up for an international nanny program, from which we had some good experiences and some not so good ones. When my son was four, my husband was working for IBM and had an opportunity to take an early retirement, which he did. He volunteered to be a house husband, because he always believed it was best to have a parent at home, so he took on that role. It was different for a boy having his father at home- his friends would ask why their fathers couldn't stay home and let mom work. I was off traveling, litigating, and working long hours.
There came a point in my career where I became a manager and was having more and more contact with the political appointees. I was not always so diplomatic, so things soured in terms of my appraisals. I decided I could have a more pleasant work environment, so I spent the last five years of my career in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). I loved my boss and my coworkers, and spent time as part of a time supervising litigation in the field. My boss was very liberal, and a very strong force for how people were supervised in the field. Under the Bush Administration, there was much pressure for him to retire. I said if he was retiring, I was retiring, so on April 2, 2005, we both retired.
What changes has retirement brought for you? After having worked and thrown myself into these issues for so long, I just stopped. I kept up with some of the people I had become friendly with, but I really just don't look at civil rights law and have moved onto different things. A lot of lawyers never really retire and are always dabbling somehow in the law. But to me it just seems like another lifetime long ago.
In the end, to you think you made the best choice in choosing a career in the federal government? I think that I had a better opportunity working in the government to have a balanced home life. Although I would say that the opportunities for women were limited at the time I was looking for work, there were more opportunities in government than in private practice for women. Over the years, people I have worked with in the government have left for private practice and then come back. Even though, in government, you often think of people in private practice and are in awe of their salary and prestige, there is really the opportunity to have a balanced life over your 35 years in government. It is also interesting to be representing the government. Some lawyers that we encountered had no ethical obligation beyond Rule 11, and they didn't have to worry about being consistent from one case to the next. To me, we had a higher level of integrity. And that sustains you when you hear about the higher salaries.