Michelle Coombs of the U.S. Geological Survey walks along a ridge just south of Akutan volcano in Alaska.
Michelle Coombs of the U.S. Geological Survey walks along a ridge just south of Akutan volcano in Alaska. Two days before an executive order by President Trump froze federal hiring on 23 January, the U.S. Department of the Interior blogged about “amazing jobs” within its ranks, including Coombs’s work as a “volcano geologist.” Credit: M.L. Coombs, Alaska Volcano Observatory/USGS

A temporary freeze on hiring federal employees has put a chill in the air at some federal science agencies, employee union leaders and others told Eos.

President Donald Trump announced the freeze in a presidential memorandum last month, ordering that no vacant positions can be filled and no new positions can be created, except in limited circumstances. The order applies across the board in the executive branch, including federal science agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The freeze, which does not apply to military personnel, calls for the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with the director of the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM), to recommend, within 90 days of the memo, a long-term plan “to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition.”

The 23 January order, which is set to expire when the OMB plan is implemented, makes some exceptions for positions related to national security or public safety. The order forbids contracting outside of the government “to circumvent the intent” of the memo. A follow-up 31 January document from OMB and OPM provides guidance and an exemption for appointing seasonal and short-term employees.

Concern That This Freeze Is Different

Other presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, have ordered hiring freezes. However, a 1982 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that those then-recent freezes were “ineffective” in managing federal employment, “disrupted” agency operations, and, in some cases, increased costs to government.

Trump’s hiring freeze is different, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington, D. C.–based alliance of local, state, and federal natural resources professionals.

The hiring freeze is “just the opening shot of a hostile takeover.”

“It’s just the opening shot of a hostile takeover,” he told Eos. “More than this [freeze], we are concerned about the next shoe to drop, which will be a bigger shoe,” he said, referring to potential upcoming budget cuts that could be proposed by the Trump administration.

“We think there are going to be significant funding cuts,” Ruch added. “So, a hiring freeze compounded by spending cuts means a lot of these agencies will crumple. They have to cease doing a lot of the functions they are now doing.”

Trump promised to shrink the size of the federal government, but the order runs counter to some of the president’s campaign promises, such as increasing domestic energy production, according to Ruch. “Even something like the Dakota [Access] pipeline is going to take hands on the ground in order to make sure it’s properly approved and not subject to litigation challenges,” he said.

Worries at EPA

John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238, which represents about 9000 EPA employees, told Eos that although other presidents have instituted hiring freezes at one point or another, “the difference is that this one seems to be linked with potential draconian actions to be taken in the near future.”

President Donald Trump signed three executive orders, including the hiring freeze, on 23 January.
President Donald Trump signed three executive orders, including the hiring freeze, on 23 January. Credit: Ron Sachs, MediaPunch/IPx

The number of full-time EPA employees sank from 18,000 to 15,000 during the Obama administration, according to O’Grady. In that light, “if the hiring freeze extends long into the future, it will have an impact on EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment,” he said.

O’Grady worries about calls by some, including Myron Ebell, former head of Trump’s EPA transition team, to slash EPA down to 5000 employees. “The thing [that] bothers me is that these people in Washington talk so glibly about the federal government being so big that we have to reduce it,” he said. “The fact is, we have roughly the same number of federal employees today as under JFK [President John F. Kennedy] in 1962.”

Questions About Who Are Essential Personnel

General counsel and legislative director Richard Hirn of the National Weather Service Employees Organization told Eos that the rank and file employees of NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) are worried about the hiring freeze and whether it will increase workloads and restrict promotions. The U.S. Department of Commerce includes NOAA.

The effect of the freeze on NWS remains unclear because the order allows exemptions for employees deemed essential to meet public safety responsibilities, Hirn noted. He didn’t know how many NWS employees, such as meteorologists and people tracking satellites, would fall into that category. During the confirmation hearing for commerce secretary, nominee Wilbur Ross said that properly staffing the NWS is important and that if confirmed, he would do his best “to quickly fill all essential positions” there.

Scott Smullen, acting director of NOAA communications, told Eos that “it’s not yet certain how this [freeze] memorandum will specifically affect our workforce and operations, which [are] mainly focused on protecting life and property and supporting the economy. At this time, we will not speculate on potential impacts, and all official guidance will be provided to our workforce as soon as possible.” He said that NOAA currently has between 1100 and 1200 full-time job vacancies.

PEER’s Ruch said that as far as he knows, agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and NSF “are not suffering from direly thin staff levels.” Spokespeople from both of those agencies and NASA told Eos that that their administrators are currently assessing the impacts of the freeze memo.

Impact on NSF

Dave Verardo, president of local chapter 3403 of AFGE, which represents NSF employees, expressed concern that the freeze might impair NSF’s ability to best serve the science community on behalf of the American public. If NSF lacks enough people to manage the merit review system, for instance, that process could slow down, he said.

Verardo added that NSF is already a fiscally lean organization, with about 96% of its budget getting passed through to congressional constituents as research grants.

Employees “are not sure if there is an economic reason behind it or if there is an ideological reason behind it.”

Because the freeze order is not very specific, it’s unclear how it will affect NSF, Verardo said. Although the freeze probably will have a direct effect on hiring new people, he does not know if it will affect new “rotators,” including NSF assistant administrators, who temporarily work for NSF through Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignments. Bill Easterling, a rotator under the IPA who will become NSF’s assistant director for geosciences on 1 June, told Eos that his appointment will not be affected by the freeze.

Whatever other impact the freeze order might have, it has hurt the morale of NSF employees, Verardo said. “People feel that the freeze is reflective of a negative view of the federal workforce by the president. They’re not sure if there is an economic reason behind it or if there is an ideological reason behind it.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Hiring freeze sparks worries at science agencies, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO067353. Published on 06 February 2017.

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