Alissa Greenberg | The Atlantic | February 9, 2017 | 0 Comments

The Real-Life Consequences of the Federal Hiring Freeze

The Office of Personnel Management building in Washington is shown in 2015. The Office of Personnel Management building in Washington is shown in 2015. Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com

After months of waiting and a few hour-long trips into Austin from his home in New Braunfels, Texas, for background checks, Terry Flemings was finally going to start working as a transcriptionist at the Internal Revenue Service. Flemings had applied for the job in October but had been wading through paperwork since then and hadn’t been able to confirm his start date, January 25, until after New Year’s. He was excited to finally leave his grueling schedule driving for Uber and Lyft behind and transition to a job, in Austin, with health insurance and dependability.

Then, two days before he was supposed to start, he received a voicemail from an IRS recruiter. At first it sounded like she was confirming his start date, but the message ended with unexpected instructions: Do not come to the office tomorrow. A follow-up email said, in part:

As of [sic] a result of the President’s order on January 23, 2017 freezing all federal civilian hiring, IRS must place an immediate hold on firm job offers. Please do not report to your new position at the IRS on your scheduled date. This rescission is due to issues beyond the IRS [sic] control and is not a reflection on you … We regret that we cannot honor the final job offer that was extended to you at this time and acknowledge this late notice may have significant impact to you and your family.

“The President’s order” was referring to the memorandum Donald Trump signed on January 23 ordering a 90-day halt to the hiring of federal employees. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made clear at a press conference that day that the order is a stopgap, meant to restrict the growth of the federal government while the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) work on a longer-term plan to cut what the administration sees as unnecessary government oversight. In the meantime, the collateral damage of the order is stress, anxiety, and confusion introduced into the lives of not just new hires at federal agencies such as Flemings, but also current employees, who have found themselves unable to transition into new positions or stuck in departments that are now semi-permanently short staffed.    

Flemings’s experience is just one example of the uncertainty the freeze has sown in some people’s lives, and the status of his job ended up changing yet again. Two days after his offer was rescinded, he received another phone call re-offering it; despite his frustration with the situation, he gratefully accepted. Flemings estimates that there were 30 people in his intake session in Austin and notes that over the course of five days, the IRS ran six or seven such sessions a day. The OMB guidance issued since his offer was rescinded states that people who were offered a job before January 22 with a starting date before February 22 should have their offers honored, so it’s likely the others at those intake sessions—and possibly people in other cohorts being onboarded around the country—were subjected to similar turns of events.

Workers at other federal agencies have also found their lives destabilized by the freeze, although perhaps to a less dramatic extent. That includes one attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his employment situation. The attorney has worked at the EPA for eight years and has been applying, without much success, for jobs at adjacent agencies that are better in line with his Master’s degree. When he got a call for a position asking for an interview, he quickly agreed.

But despite higher-ups at that agency telling him they were very interested and that he was “uniquely qualified” for the job prior to his interview, the attorney received an email on the morning of January 27 saying that because of the ambiguity of Trump’s memorandum, the agency was still unsure how to interpret the hiring freeze and were “not sure what [they] were going to do with the vacancy at this point.”

The attorney, who said he knew of several people in agencies like his who were in similar positions, was also looking into a new job within his department, but after an interview was told that the EPA did not yet know whether the executive order permitted the hiring of people who are already government employees. That kind of confusion has become common across the federal government, he says. “OMB’s guidance wasn’t very, well, guiding.” If he can’t find a job soon, he’s considering moving to Canada to pursue a Ph.D.

When contacted, some of the agencies and departments named in this article provided comment about the hiring freeze; others did not respond. The ones that did affirmed their commitment to their employees and to the communities they serve and/or implicitly acknowledged the confusing nature of the freeze by saying that they were still consulting with the OMB and OPM. When asked about how the freeze had affected federal workers themselves, a White House spokesperson said, “We have not heard complaints, but as with any new administration, there are bound to be concerns from employees across the federal government,” adding that the president “has always said he will work toward a more efficient government that alleviates the use of taxpayer dollars for unnecessary positions and regulations.”

That said, in the meantime, conversations with government employees suggest that the freeze has not just complicated the lives of those looking for new jobs, but also those looking to keep the ones they have: A freeze on hiring means that current employees will have to make do with their current teams, even if they need more coworkers or an assistant to do their jobs. It’s not uncommon for agencies to hold positions open as they search for qualified candidates and work through hiring protocols that can be very complex. These agencies will now be short-staffed for the foreseeable future, according to one staffer at the Department of the Interior, who also asked not to be identified out of fear that it might endanger her job.

“The program where I work has grown 40 times its original size [in terms of the number of communities it served], and the person who had this job before me never got assistance,” the staffer says, even when the program grew. Still, she says, “There are three positions that manage the program. One was empty, one retired, so it’s just me. And all of the work is statutorily required,” meaning that federal law mandates it.

Employees at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) are feeling a similar labor crunch. One VA health-science specialist who also asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job says the hiring freeze has exacerbated the department’s chronic understaffing problem. Of the two teams she works on, one has three people though she says there is enough work for four; the other has 12 people though she says there should be 15.

Although the OMB has stipulated that the majority of open jobs within the VA, including most doctors, will be exempt from the freeze, the specialist predicts that it will still make most employees’ lives more difficult. The department’s support staff—including administrators and clerical workers—are also essential, she says. Without them, scheduling, benefits, eligibility, and other important VA functions are impossible to maintain effectively. There is also the issue of having to retain underperforming staff. Under the freeze, the specialist says, “We can’t even afford to get rid of people who suck. It’s a blunt instrument to solve what’s really a chronic HR problem. To me, it’s unethical to freeze things to the point where it’s not possible to provide services to veterans.”

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, also sees this as a problem, especially because he predicts that this temporary freeze will lead into a longer-term one imposed by Congress—which, unlike the president, has the power to impose a more permanent hiring freeze by passing a law, perhaps before Trump’s executive order expires. The effects of freezes like Trump’s, which functions through attrition, are directed at “random,” Light says: “If you target the freeze, you get a different outcome. Government-wise, across the board is probably the worst way to downsize … It doesn’t distinguish between the various things people do, whether they’re essential to a critical mission or not.” Worse, he notes that this kind of freeze “falls heaviest on the bottom,” meaning that people looking to apply to the lowest-ranking jobs, where there is most turnover, will suffer the most.

Moreover, the federal workforce has a current average age of about 50, and the freeze will cause that number to rise, with the young people who usually fill those low-ranking jobs unable to do so. As essential but lower-ranking spots go unfilled, the freeze, Light says, will “have productivity effects. It will have morale effects, but I’m not sure this administration cares about morale effects.”

These issues of understaffing are likely to get worse, Light says, pointing out that this may have been one of Trump’s goals in signing the order. Light estimates that under the 90-day executive order, between 15,000 and 30,000 jobs that would have opened up will remain unfilled. If the freeze is replaced by a longer one, that number could rise to as high as 75,000 in a year. (The federal government made roughly that number of hires in both 2012 and 2013, the most recent data published by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses, in part, on federal employment.) Although that doesn’t represent a very large percentage of the federal workforce, which is more than two-million-strong, those unfilled jobs are likely to disrupt the lives and responsibilities of both current government workers called upon to do more than one person’s job and would-be applicants who are currently finishing the fellowships or other programs that normally fill those jobs.

Among those on fellowships hoping, against the odds, to enter the federal workforce is the anonymous DOI staffer, who calls her current stress level “indescribable.” “Knowing now I’ll be doing three people’s jobs and never be able to serve the community the way they deserve while it’s just me makes me feel so sad,” she says. She landed her position through the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), a prestigious government program that acts as a feeder for many federal agencies. David Anderson, a current PMF finalist—meaning he’s been offered the fellowship but hasn’t been placed yet—describes the atmosphere in the program as disconcerted and apprehensive. “There’s a lot of disappointment in how disorganized and mismanaged things seem to be,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be a plan, just these kind of theatrical movements. It makes for a good billboard or slogan to say ‘hiring freeze.’ … But as far as day-to-day governance, it’s really difficult. It puts a lot of people who want to do good things in a position where they can’t.”

Anderson, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is pursuing work in either the civil or foreign service, both of which are affected by the hiring freeze. The DOI staffer says current Presidential Management Fellows are afraid that, although their positions are currently protected under the freeze, after the 90 days stipulated in the executive order, either their program or the departments where they seek permanent employment will be cut. “The 300 or so fellows ending their fellowships this year will likely not be able to convert to a full-time position,” Anderson says.

At the State Department, diplomats-in-training have similar worries. As many as 350 people every year come through the training program in which Anderson hopes to participate. But he says the message they’ve gotten, garbled through rumor and fear, is that “as of right now the State Department intends to hire no new diplomats through this fiscal year. Even people who had been offered a job, some of them had left their jobs wherever they were to come to D.C., and they can’t start.” (A spokesperson did not comment on the State Department’s hiring plans, but said it “is in the process of reviewing hiring in accordance with OPM/OMB guidance. As of this time, no training classes have been cancelled.”) Given Anderson’s security clearance and job prospects, he’s not as fearful about his future as some of his cohort. Still, he says he feels frustrated and “stymied” by the freeze—which, Light points out, may be the Trump administration’s intent. 

Still others dependent on federal agencies for their livelihoods have been affected by Trump’s executive orders. On the day Trump ordered the hiring freeze, he also signed a similar order freezing any contracts and grants currently under review at the EPA. Danielle Purifoy, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, has followed news of the budgetary freeze at the Environmental Protection Agency with trepidation. Like many doctoral students, she relies on a fellowship for support, in this case from the EPA. Purifoy spent the week of the announcement in suspense, receiving conflicting emails from her contact at the EPA and the grants administrator at Duke. In the first days after the freeze was announced, Purifoy was unsure if she would receive her monthly stipend and was looking into emergency loans to pay her rent. “It’s very clear that people within the agency haven’t been notified about the specifics,” she said then. “It just means we’re in this holding pattern.”

Her stipend arrived on time, but no new information came with it. Finally, early last week, her EPA grant officer called with an encouraging but still ambiguous message. “She [the EPA officer] had only been authorized to say that the EPA is operating ‘business as usual,’” Purifoy says, adding that the officer said she could not give any further information.   

Purifoy has spent the time since the freeze feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. “With any new administration, I think the expectation is that some programs will be revisited, revamped, or eliminated,” she says. “That’s certainly not out of the ordinary. But this is really not that. You could be in the middle of a program and have your livelihood basically depend on it, and it’s just up in the air all of a sudden.”

For now, she says, “I've decided not to worry until they give me another reason to worry—too much work to do.” She’ll finish her degree within a year and is more concerned about the future of the EPA itself. Meanwhile, Flemings started his job at the IRS on Monday, and says it was a “normal” day; Anderson continues to plan for his Presidential Management Fellowship and talks about starting his State Department trainee program with optimism.  

But it’s still not clear what the future holds for those who depend on government funding and employment, especially if Light’s predictions of a more permanent cut from Congress prove correct. If such a freeze comes to pass, it will accomplish the president’s goal of reducing the size of the federal workforce. But as Anderson, Flemings, and their peers know well, the federal workforce is not some abstraction—it’s a bunch of people with jobs, whose lives will almost definitely be made harder and more stressful.

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