By William Wiley, January 31, 2017

No, this is not one of the inaugural crowd photos that was deleted from the National Park Service website. It is a photo of the big celebration on the Mall a couple weeks ago to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the effective date of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Were you there? Well, although no one else was either, we here at FELTG certainly were (hey, somebody’s taking that picture) because we believe in the importance of federal workers and an efficient accountable government workforce. Plus, we never pass up an opportunity to celebrate anything if food and drink are involved. Be sure to mark your calendars for next year so that you, too, can participate in the big celebration.

Of course, next year the celebration may be even smaller than this picture shows we had this year. Why, you ask? Well, if you have been anywhere other than locked in the bowels of the Mount Weather underground emergency operations center, you will have heard by now that the new administration has declared a hiring freeze for large swaths of the federal government – covering some organizations, excluding others – with Congress considering bills to include/exclude their own favorite agencies.

If you’ve been around for previous hiring freezes, you know that they are a lot like other mistakes in judgment that one might exercise. When something especially good happens to you, for many of us it sounds like a good time to celebrate by having an extra glass or three of a favorite adult libation. Of course, the next morning we wake up and realize that tying one on in retrospect probably wasn’t the smartest thing we could have done the night before. Same result with a hiring freeze. It’s easy to declare one and it sounds like a good way to improve government by reducing the payroll, but in reality, the morning-after hangover tells us that there was probably a better way to get to the same result.

We all know how a hiring freeze works. When a person quits his government job, the frozen agency is not allowed to replace the employee one-for-one. Sometimes there’s a ratio of allowed replacements; sometimes none are allowed at all. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, about 10% of the federal workforce leaves government each year, almost all doing so voluntarily. We don’t have statistics regarding where they go next, but it would seem logical that those who do not retire move on to other jobs in the private sector.

Stay with me as we climb this logic tree. For the sake of having easy numbers, let’s say that 10 out of 100 federal employees (10% of the federal workforce) are toxic; e.g., are bad employees who are not earning their pay check. In a non-freeze year, 10 employees would quit, 10 new employees would be hired, and the percentage of bad employees would stay at 10%.

Now, let’s look at a freeze year. I think it’s fair to say that comparing great employees to toxic workers, the good employees are more likely to leave government than are the weak employees. Good employees get better offers; bad employees often know they are lucky to have a well-paying government job. The good leave. The bad stay put. Again, using easy numbers for illustration, if 10 employees leave the fed during a hiring freeze and are not replaced, we go from 10 bad employees out of 100 to 10 out of 90. That means that now 11% of the civil service is composed of bad employees. If we lose another 10 good employees the following freeze year, we now have 10 toxic employees for every 80 good employees, a bad-to-good ratio of 12.5%. And so on, and so on. Use your own numbers, time frames, and ratios if you prefer, but one thing is clear. If you accept the premise that good employees are more likely to leave government than are bad employees, eventually you will have a federal workforce with a higher percentage of non-performing employees than you would without a hiring freeze.

That’s what I call an unwise hangover.

Another aspect of a hiring freeze that will resonate with readers who have attended any of Deb’s dynamite EEO law seminars regarding the accommodation of employees with disabilities. As all FELTG-trained practitioners know, when working with a disabled employee, an agency is first required to try to modify the employee’s current position so that she can perform its essential duties. If that is not possible, the disabled employee has two other entitlements. In priority order, they are:

  1. Placement into a vacant position for which the employee is qualified, at the same grade anywhere one is available within the agency.
  2. Placement into a vacant position for which the employee is qualified and for which the agency is recruiting at a lower grade.

With a hiring freeze, there are no vacant positions available at any grade. Therefore, the only option for the agency when confronted with a disabled employee who cannot perform an essential job function is removal. The two employee entitlements above become meaningless.

There may well be good reasons for a hiring freeze. Even so, there are also bad outcomes that result from a hiring freeze. One would hope that the decision to impose a freeze is reached only after serious consideration of the morning-after. Wiley@FELTG.com

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