WASHINGTON, DC – Federal bureaucrats are addicted to Aerons, the trendy ergonomic chairs that can sell for more than $1,000 apiece.
An investigation by The Daily reveals that federal government agencies bought 1,002 ergonomic chairs from 2005 to 2011. All but 194 of them were Aerons.
Uncle Sam spent at least $497,494 on the chairs during that period, at an average cost of more than $500 each.
Among the evidence of the federal government’s unbridled enthusiasm for pricey chairs:
– The State Department spent $128,036 on 235 Aerons in December 2009 to furnish its Bureau of Overseas Building Operations in Arlington, Va.
– The Army dropped $82,925 on 194 Raynor Eurotech Ergohuman chairs in August 2007 for Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
– The Health and Human Services Department bought 30 Aerons for $17,651 in September 2011 to furnish its headquarters in Washington.
In the current fiscal climate, even liberal critics wonder why federal agencies continue to spend big bucks on fancy office chairs.
“I don’t know why they’re paying that amount. You can find [ergonomic chairs] for $350,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University’s Wagner School.
Federal officials said Aerons, the sleek, adjustable seats that first gained popularity during the 1990s dot-com boom, are necessary for employees suffering from back problems or repetitive-stress syndrome.
Bruce Ridgely, property management specialist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the 272 Aeron chairs the agency bought from 2005 to 2011 were for “medical purposes.”
Beth Gosselin, a press officer for the State Department, said the agency buys Aerons for their orthopedic value and availability.
“It is typically highly ergonomic and includes passive or active adjustments to fit a wide segment of the population,” she said.
But Aeron critics like Charlie Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly magazine, say federal employees often request the chairs to establish their rank in the office pecking order.
“What happens is, things like this become status symbols. Someone gets a chair and another person of similar rank immediately wants one,” Peters said.
These days, Aerons are becoming practically commonplace in federal offices.
When Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek was asked to confirm the department’s purchase of 29 Aerons at $556 each in June 2008, she did not realize she was sitting on an Aeron at the time.
“It’s a very common chair within the Air Force,” Stefanek told The Daily. “When you first called, I thought it was something out of the ordinary, so I checked with our contractors. They told me you’re sitting in one. In fact, everyone in my office [of 20 or 30 people] has one. This is not an unusual purchase.”
After the manufacturer, Michigan-based Herman Miller Co., started shipping the first of the 7 million Aerons since 1995, it developed a reputation as the office throne for the new economy, becoming popular at dot-coms, Fortune 500 companies, and A-list Hollywood production sets. The Museum of Modern Art even put a 1992 Aeron in its permanent collection.
The federal government does not pay retail for Aerons, which sell for $750 to $1,150, says company spokesman Mark Schurman. But it also doesn’t pinch pennies. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for instance, paid $450.50 per Aeron in 2005, $501.26 in 2006, and $518.24 in 2008.
Of the 11 large-scale Aeron purchases The Daily confirmed with federal officials or private contractors, seven were awarded in August or September, the last two months of the fiscal year.
The late date of the purchases is no surprise to longtime observers of the federal bureaucracy, who say the practice is an annual budget-fattening ritual.
“You have to unload money at the end of the year,” said Peters, the Peace Corps’ director of evaluation from 1962 to 1968. “If you don’t spend what you’ve got, Congress is going to say, ‘Why should we give you more money when you didn’t even spend what we gave you last year?’ ”
As for this year, federal agencies still have time to purchase more Aerons — their fiscal clock doesn’t end until Sept. 30.