Good or bad, no idea in Washington ever really dies.
For instance, the idea that it’s too hard to fire federal employees endures. You’d think federal employees are unkillable Terminators, to borrow Elon Musk’s latest reference. Although if I recall, the original 1984 Terminator was eventually blown to bits and then smushed in some kind of giant press. But it sure cost a lot.
In reality, firing people can be easy or deadly slow and expensive, depending on many factors, such as age, bargaining unit membership, seniority, the very reasons for termination and how the agency goes about it in the first place.
In one recent case before the Merit Systems Protection Board, a member of the Federal Protective Service received 10 years of back pay, plus interest. He’d been charged in 2013 with a California gun law violation. A criminal indictment is generally solid cause for suspending or dismissing an employee. But the MSPB administrative law judge found that details of how California officials actually handled the case ruled out the suspension by Homeland Security, which the judge found misapplied the standard. (My thanks to regular reader A.D. for sending me this case.)
On the other hand, I can think of a half dozen senior agency officials over the years who have been unceremoniously walked out of their buildings in the proverbial, don’t-let-the-door-hit-your-fanny-on-the-way-out gesture.
Now a group of House Republicans have come out with a bill they call the Restore VA Accountability Act. Note the bill specifically applies only to the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it reflects a certain sentiment about federal employees generally.
The bill mostly reads non-controversially. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get rid of terrible performers?
One provision, though, states, ” The procedures under Chapter 43 of Title 5 shall not apply to a removal, demotion, or suspension under this section, and the Secretary may carry out such a removal, demotion, or suspension without first placing a covered individual on a performance improvement plan.” Oddly, the Title 5 reference is within the bill’s Section 2, which amends Title 38, the civil service code for medical employees. I’m no lawyer, but even I can see the legal challenges this bill would provoke.
As Jory Heckman reported, the new bill comes partly because a 2017 law to make it easier to fire of Veterans Affairs employees fizzled. VA’s personnel chief, Rondy Waye, said federal judges and the MSPB so limited to whom the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act could apply, that it became essentially a pistol with an empty mag.
Anyhow, Waye said VA takes actions against about 5,000 employees a year as it is. My sense is, regardless of whatever laws get enacted, good personnel basics apply. If you really want to get rid of someone, you need objective and legal criteria, clarity on both sides, a chance to improve, and documentation. Easy to say, a real effort to do in a busy workplace. But that’s why you signed up for management.
Feed someone hungry this summer
Here’s one good idea management and line employees can agree on. When generous feds get together, results add up. Now a month in, this year’s Feds Feed Families campaign, under the auspices of the Agriculture Department, has gathered lots of food. According to Andrea Simao, a USDA employee and national chair of the FFF program, feds so far this summer have donated 2.5 million pounds. In its 14 years, the program has provided donations totaling more than 100 million pounds.
USDA revs up the program in the summer. One reason, according to Duane Williams, the acting deputy assistant Agriculture secretary for administration, is that the school lunch programs don’t operate in the summer. That causes a heavier drawdown from local food banks, whose shelf stocks get thin.
Feds Feed Families offers versatile ways to donate. You can drop off a case of canned red beans or make a monetary donation, the usual ways. You can also help glean a field of a cooperating farmer, even donate something calorie-dense from your own garden. Next Wednesday agency locations throughout the country will hold “stuff the truck” — or van, or car — days. You can bring donations the vehicle will deliver to a nearby food bank.
I wanted to give a little boost to Feds Feed Families. For those of us privileged to be free of food insecurity, it’s easy to forget how many people in the nation are not. The USDA estimation is 33 million families. Some of them list in the toniest zip codes, some in rural areas.
And a special call out to people like Ms. Simao. Her “day” job is special assistant with the APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Feds who do volunteer for programs such as Feds Feed Families, or the Combined Federal Campaign, generally don’t get absolution from their jobs for the duration. Donating food this summer, then, helps with a real need and honors your colleagues who sustain these campaigns.