Editor’s Note: Jared Serbu’s story “Pentagon orders 16 specific exemptions to federal hiring freeze” updates much of the information in this story regarding the impact of the hiring freeze on Defense Department employees.
Although the governmentwide hiring freeze President Donald Trump ordered last week was mainly meant to shrink the federal workforce through gradual, voluntary attrition, it could result in an untold number of unexpected dismissals for Defense workers in charge of repairing and “resetting” military equipment, a task the new Defense secretary, James Mattis has said is among his most urgent priorities.
At issue are thousands of blue-collar personnel working in government-operated maintenance and production depots — mostly in the Army — who are classified not as permanent civil servants, but as term employees whose appointments to the federal workforce are renewed once-a-year, as needed.
Those reappointments are prohibited as long as the hiring freeze remains intact, and the affected workers, most of whom are paid from working capital funds, have been given little information about whether they’ll continue to be employed. That’s despite the fact that their jobs are pivotal to DoD’s mission to keep its equipment ready for battle. By law, at least 50 percent of the military’s maintenance work must be done by government employees in government depots.
“There is concern that these types of positions have been overlooked and there are no guidelines for term employees,” one depot employee told Federal News Radio. “But there is funding and workload for these employees.”
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The Crane Army Ammunition Activity (CAAA) in Crane, Indiana, for example, employs more than 260 term employees, according to Tom Peske, a depot spokesman. About half — 130 — have appointments that expire within the next 90 days and could be let go.
“Term employees are potentially at risk due to the nature of their extension being a new hiring action,” he said in an email. “CAAA, Joint Munitions Command and our supporting civilian personnel offices are actively working to resolve this so that there will be no interruption of CAAA’s critical service of providing ammunition to the warfighter.”
Anniston Army Depot in Eastaboga, Alabama, employs 241 term and temporary workers. An Anniston spokesman said 84 of them may be released because their appointments are due to expire in the next 90 days and can’t be renewed. Red River Army Depot in northeast Texas faces a similar situation: more than 700 maintenance personnel are term employees whose reappointments are barred by the hiring freeze.
The Defense Department was unable to provide an overall estimate of the number of temporary and term employees who might be affected by the hiring freeze Tuesday, but a spokesman said the department is completing the process of classifying some civilian employees as exempt from the freeze, a step that’s permitted under Trump’s executive order if agency heads deem certain positions to be critical to national security or public safety.
The Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget issued governmentwide guidance to agencies on Tuesday evening, drawing broad outlines for which positions might be exempt. But it’s still up to agency heads to request specific exceptions and release their own guidance, a step that only the Veterans Affairs Department has taken thus far.
The potential for layoffs of depot maintenance personnel is much less of a problem for the Navy and the Air Force.
The Air Force, as a whole, has only 541 term employees across all of its massive air logistics centers, and only a relative few of them work in “sustainment” positions like maintaining aircraft and weapons, said Derek Kaufman, a spokesman for Air Force Materiel Command. Likewise, most of the personnel working in Navy-owned shipyards are permanent government employees, not term-limited ones, said a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command.
But even if no personnel are laid off, several members of Congress are worried that a freeze in new hires would prove extremely disruptive to the military’s maintenance procedures, which run on extremely tight schedules with very little wiggle room for any shortfalls in their labor requirements. Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia is already short by more than 300 aircraft maintainers and can’t hire any more because of the freeze.
On Tuesday, five Democratic senators and one House member from coastal states where public shipyards are located introduced legislation that would shield them from the hiring freeze.
“Unfilled positions in our shipyards mean our ships and submarines spend more time in port and less time on mission,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), whose district includes the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, also argued that the hiring freeze had already begun to endanger national security by closing the hiring pipeline for maintenance personnel starting Jan. 23, calling it a “strike at the heart of military readiness.”
“That is unconscionable, and it directly affects the support we provide to U.S. service members in the field, not to mention the national security of the United States,” he said.
Jared Serbu is deputy editor of Federal News Network and reports on the Defense Department’s contracting, legislative, workforce and IT issues.