Certain term, temporary employees can serve for longer under new OPM regulatory fix

Agencies will soon be able to hang on to certain term and temporary employees for longer.

In a proposed rule scheduled for publication Monday, the Office of Personnel Management said it will allow agencies to make term or temporary appointments for up to 10 years in order to staff certain projects.

Agencies will be allowed to appoint personnel to longer term or temporary appointments for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations and for positions needed to launch, operate or close-out certain time-limited projects that are funded through specific appropriations or direction from Congress.

Current regulations cap temporary appointments at a maximum of four years, though agencies can ask OPM for permission to extend a term for longer.

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“OPM recognizes, however, that the work performed by STEM positions, and positions needed in support of projects and organizations specifically funded by Congress, often lasts longer than four years,” the agency wrote in its draft regulations.

Research, data collection and trend analysis, for example, often take longer than four years, especially if external or environmental factors arise outside of the agency’s control.

Projects funded by a specific congressional appropriation also often require personnel for indefinite periods of time, OPM said.

Under OPM’s proposed regulations, agencies will be able to appoint personnel to STEM positions or positions necessary to staff congressionally-funded projects for terms of more than one year to a maximum of 10 years.

If an agency initially appoints an employee for a term of less than 10 years, organizations can extend the appointment up to the 10-year limit in increments of its choosing, OPM said.

OPM also pointed to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found the pace of technological change has created growing STEM skills gaps.

“Given this high demand, agencies will need the flexibility and agility to attract and retain talent, for a significant period of time, with up-to-date knowledge and training in the STEM fields for time-limited projects,” the draft regulations read. “This regulation will allow agencies to hire new STEM personnel and grant their own extension of the term appointments, if initially hired for less than 10 years, to allow agencies the ability to shape their workforce with greater agility to meet current and emerging mission needs.”

OPM named several other benefits to longer term appointments.

First, allowing STEM talent to serve for up to 10 years should give agencies the flexibility to place term and temporary employees in supervisory or management roles throughout the entire lifecycle of the project — and potentially alleviate the reliance on contractors to staff certain IT jobs.

A longer appointment could also be attractive to STEM applicants, who can more fully take advantage of federal health and retirement benefits under 10-year arrangements with an agency as opposed to the current one-to-four-year term or as a contractor, OPM said.

In additional, individual agencies themselves are in the best position to determine how long term and temporary appointments should last, OPM said.

“OPM believes this flexibility promotes retention and continuity, workforce planning, and minimizes disruptions during project work because term employees may be less likely to leave if they know their employment for the anticipated life of the project is secure rather than face an uncertain future awaiting a process under which their agency requests and must receive OPM extension approval for continuing work on the same project,” the draft regulations read.

Term and temporary appointments, however, aren’t a replacement for the permanent federal workforce, and agencies will still be subject to OPM’s oversight to make sure they’re using the authority properly.

The public has until Nov. 10 to comment on OPM’s proposed regulations.

The new proposal from OPM is the latest effort to grant agencies more flexibility within the bounds of existing personnel system.

OPM, for example, announced plans late last year which allow agencies to rehire individuals who have left government at a higher grade level than when they originally departed federal service.

Regulations released last fall gave agencies instructions for more quickly disciplining or removing federal employees for poor performance, one of several pieces to the president’s 2018 executive orders on firing, official time and collective bargaining.

The Trump administration has often expressed an interest in finding new flexibilities for agencies to hire term and temporary appointees. The president’s most recent budget request described plans to expand authorities for term employees and allow agencies to more easily hire temporary experts.