By Phil Piemonte
Who out there thinks they will recognize the federal workforce a year from now?
As agencies scramble to come to terms with impending budget cuts in the next fiscal year, offers for early-outs and buyouts have begun to pop up. This week alone, both the Education Department and the Government Accountability Office have announced their intention to offer early-outs and cash incentives.
With fiscal pressures mounting, it’s not unreasonable to expect more offers to emerge in the weeks and months ahead. And given the antipathy shown toward feds by many in this Congress, it’s a fair guess that plenty of feds are ready to take those offers.
The biggest downsizing news to hit in the last few days, of course, belongs to the U.S. Postal Service, which wants Congress to let it void no-layoff provisions in its union contacts so it can get rid of 120,000 more employees by 2015 than it would lose through projected attrition.
USPS also is seeking permission to pull its employees out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, as well as get them out of the federal government’s retirement systems. USPS asserts that it can do a better job running those programs for its employees.
Perhaps it can. But we were more intrigued by a phrase that appeared consistently throughout two white papers USPS sent to lawmakers suggesting the changes. The phrase may hold a clue as to how things will proceed — in a broader sense — from this point forward. The papers frequently cite “the private-sector comparability standard.”
For example: “The Postal Service does not believe that FEHB meets the private-sector comparability standard…a legislative change that allows the Postal Service to establish its own health benefits program would allow the Postal Service to fully incorporate private-sector best practices, saving money while also providing comparable benefits to employees.” In almost identical words, USPS makes the same case for exiting the two federal retirement programs.
As most people know, neither private-sector health care plans nor private-sector retirement plans — generally speaking — provide benefits as generous as those available under the federal programs. So what the Postal Service is really suggesting is that if a benefit is better than what most people get out there in the private sector, it has got to go.
Of course, the Postal Service is, in fact, a different animal. Even though it entrusted with providing universal service, it nonetheless really is supposed to operate more like a private-sector business.
But we also know how this Congress thinks. It puts a lot of stock in the idea of “private-sector comparability.” Many in Congress, one way or another, will continue to try to eliminate, trim or otherwise alter now-generous federal benefits — at the Postal Service or elsewhere in the government — to get them in line with what’s available in the private sector. For better or for worse.
If that happens, and the economy manages to get back on its feet, not only will more feds head out the door, but many prospective feds won’t come in that door in the first place.
Posted on Aug 12, 2011 at 1:07 PM42 comments
More than a few readers of this blog have indicated that they believe favoritism is alive and well in the federal workplace.
And as all — or most or perhaps many — feds know, there is a clear prohibition against favoritism spelled out in Merit Principle No. 8, as follows:
“Employees should be —
(A) protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and
(B) prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.”
Then again, the articles of the Constitution seem simple enough on the surface, too. The first part of No. 8 — Part A — protects feds against favoritism from above, as well as from political pressure and arbitrary actions against them by agencies. At the same time, Part B protects feds from other feds, in terms of any political pressure they might apply to one another.
According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, Part A incorporates an idea that traces back to the Pendleton Act of 1883 — that feds should not be subject to a patronage or “spoils” system. Under that system, civil servants’ continued employment depended on whether they voted the way their bosses told them to vote, and bosses hired employees according to their personal preferences rather than based on a person’s merit.
At the same time, Part B puts a restriction on feds themselves by barring them from using their authority or office to influence nominations and elections. In applying Principle No. 8, MSPB notes that the right to be free from political coercion is so important that it is “extended even to probationary employees who do not have the same appeal rights that tenured employees have.”
The prohibition of the activities in Part B is enforced primarily through something called the 1939 Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it’s usually referred to by the name of its author, a senator from New Mexico named Carl Hatch.
The Hatch Act, if you’ve been properly informed, prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities while on duty, wearing a uniform, or using a government vehicle or computer, among other things. The bottom line is that feds are forbidden from using their official capacity in any way to influence an election.
Although some feds commenting on this blog have expressed different opinions on MSPB’s effectiveness in enforcing Part A, the section on favoritism, they should note that MSPB also does pre-emptive work on the issue by vetting — and sometimes turning back — regulations that might open up feds to violations of Principle No. 8.
And of course, the board’s Office of Policy and Evaluation also does a good bit of research on how well the merit system and the federal workforce are faring. It did that in a December 2009 report, “Fair and Equitable Treatment: Progress Made and Challenges Remaining,” which showed that “a substantial percentage of federal employees harbor concerns about the impact of favoritism on management decisions.”
So fear not, MSPB — like many readers of this blog — also knows that favoritism is alive and well in the federal workplace.
Posted on Aug 09, 2011 at 2:32 PM47 comments
Largely lost amid all the debt ceiling and Federal Aviation Administration furlough news, two senior Republican senators earlier this week introduced a bill to “reduce both the size and scope of the federal government.” In this case, that translates to “federal workforce.”
You knew it was coming.
None of the measures proposed by the bill are new. Most have a pedigree tracing back to recommendations put together by President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Aspects of the bill have appeared in other proposed legislation. But they aren’t going away.
The bill, from Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), is called the “Federal Workforce Reduction and Reform Act of 2011.” The legislation, announced Aug. 2, among other things, would extend the current two-year freeze on federal civilian employees’ salaries by another three years.
Yes, that’s right. The bill also would freeze all bonuses—including performance and recruitment bonuses—for that same time period.
In addition, the legislation requires a 15-percent cut in the size of the federal workforce, as well as cuts to the contractor workforce, over a 10-year period. These cuts, according to a press release from Hatch, “could easily be accomplished through attrition and simple accounting without adding to unemployment.”
“Simple accounting”—nothing ominous about that.
The senators’ bill also would cut the federal government’s annual travel budget by 75 percent. The current budget, which the sponsors put at $15 billion a year, is “a figure that is no longer necessary or sustainable,” they said.
Total savings realized by the measures in the bill?
“Our bill will generate significant savings—more than $600 billion—by implementing just a small handful of relatively simple reforms,” said Hatch.
So there it is.
Bottom line: The only thing Congress is likely to give feds in the near future is a month of respite during the August recess.
And then come September, the other shoe—or shoes—will begin to drop.
Posted on Aug 04, 2011 at 1:23 PM36 comments
So, what does that mean anyway? Let’s look at the first item in the president’s fact sheet on the bipartisan budget deal …
“[The deal] removes the cloud of uncertainty over our economy at this critical time, by ensuring that no one will be able to use the threat of the nation’s first default now, or in only a few months, for political gain.”
No surprise there—even a casual observer by now might agree that this, in a nutshell—vying for political advantage—is what the debt-ceiling debate really has been about.
While the part about removing “the cloud of uncertainty over our economy” may have some validity (many would disagree), the budget deal by all accounts in fact introduces a whole lot of new uncertainty somewhere else: the federal workplace.
Because the thrust of the bill, aside from raising the debt ceiling, is simply to cut.
And then cut some more.
“Federal agencies will have to cut $7 billion from their current budgets under the first phase of this debt deal,” notes American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage. “This could mean cutting tens of thousands of federal jobs like Social Security claims representatives, doctors and nurses at VA hospitals, border patrol agents and EPA scientists.”
Or pretty much any other federal position. Agencies, and a lot of contractors, are going to have to tighten their belts. Really tight.
“Federal workers in agencies throughout the government will no doubt be facing furloughs and even RIFs, and private-sector workers working for contractors will also be impacted,” predicted International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers President Gregory Junemann.
Over the past few days, federal employee advocates have reined in their enthusiasm over the bill’s absence of measures directly addressing federal pay and benefits. That may be because they knew that the bill didn’t really have to address pay and benefits: Total employment costs will go down anyway if agencies are squeezed into cutting employees or not replacing them. Besides, Congress can always take it up in the future.
Anyway, look on the bright side: The bill is signed. The government won’t have to default. Financial markets are heaving a sigh of relief.
And perhaps best of all, Congress is leaving town for a month.
Posted on Aug 02, 2011 at 2:13 PM14 comments