By Dan Gephart, September 10, 2019
It’s always interesting when federal employment law makes its way into mainstream conversation. After Kellyanne Conway’s failure to understand and comply with the Hatch Act made headlines, people who have yet to figure what kind of work I do were telling me about the Hatch Act.
Back in a previous life, I edited a book on compliance with the Hatch Act. In terms of length, the book was less Stephen King’s The Stand and more Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. And like those aforementioned stories, the Hatch Act, which originally became law in 1939, had an element of horror: The punishment for Hatch Act violations was termination.
Then in 2012, the Hatch Act was updated to allow more discretion in punishment, along with several other provisions. This made sense. Some Hatch Act violations are more severe than the others. Thanks to the change in the law, the rise of social media, the overt politicization of almost every aspect of our lives, and the increasing divide in the country, the Hatch Act has become a lot more difficult to navigate.
However, you do not need a book to get your answers. The Office of Special Counsel oversees the Hatch Act. Its Hatch Act Unit, led by Ana Galindo-Marrone, handles all matters related to the law, and provides regular guidance. All you need to do is ask. If you are seeking advice about your political activity or the activity of another employee, under the Hatch Act, you may request an advisory opinion from OSC by calling (800) 854-2824 or (202) 804-7002. You can also email the Unit at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to Ana Galindo-Marrone and her team at the Office of Special Counsel’s Hatch Act Unit for answering our questions.
DG: Must a federal employee’s personal social media account be free of any reference to their governmental position if they expect to post political content?
OSC: No. The Hatch Act does not prohibit employees from including their governmental position in the biographical information section of their social media account, even if they post political content on that account. However, if the employee is using the account for official purposes, the employee should not engage in political activity on that account.
DG: What Hatch Act violations are you seeing in this political cycle that are new or unexpected?
OSC: We are seeing more violations involving employees engaging in political activity in their official capacities, whether on official social media accounts or in the performance of their official duties. We also have received more complaints about employees openly stating or displaying their support or opposition to a candidate in the workplace.
DG: If a federal supervisor thinks one of her employees is in violation of the Hatch Act, what should she do?
OSC: Federal supervisors can call OSC’s Hatch Act Unit to discuss whether the employee’s activity violates the Hatch Act, and if so, the best course forward.
DG: If a federal employee’s relative is running for office, what are the limitations on the assistance a federal employee can provide to the campaign?
OSC: It depends on whether the employee is less restricted or further restricted. Less restricted employees, which are the majority of the federal workforce, generally may provide support to a relative’s campaign, as long as they do not:
- Engage in any campaign-activity at work, including using social media or email.
- Fundraise for the campaign by any means.
- Use their position to assist the campaign by, for example, involving subordinate employees in the campaign or engaging in campaign activity in their official capacity.
Further restricted employees generally are those employed in intelligence and enforcement-type agencies or who hold certain positions, such as career SES. They may not take an active part in partisan political campaigning, which means they may not engage in any activity in concert with a political party or candidate for partisan political office (e.g., working as a campaign volunteer, distributing campaign materials, circulating nominating petitions, etc.). In addition to the limitations placed on less restricted employees, further restricted employees may not provide assistance to a relative’s campaign if such assistance is done in concert with the campaign. They may, however, make a monetary donation to the campaign, appear in a family photograph that is used for campaign purposes, or accompany the candidate to a campaign-event. Gephart@FELTG.com