Shutdowns, relocations and mergers defined a whirlwind 2019 for the federal workforce

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For large swaths of the workforce in 2019, this past year was defined by a feature that’s mostly uncommon in the federal government: Instability.

Much of what federal employees thought they knew about their pay, benefits, workplace flexibilities and even the location of their offices, in some cases, were in flux.

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history forced the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget to answer questions they’ve never confronted before. Some agencies recalled their employees back to work on the fly, prompting lawsuits from federal unions and questions from the Government Accountability Office.

Federal pay raises didn’t kick in at their usual time in early January. A 1.9% retroactive pay adjustment for civilian federal employees took months to implement. Most didn’t get 2019 pay raises until April, later for others.

Some pockets of the federal workforce saw long-established telework programs tweaked or upended. The Interior Department ended telework for its supervisors and added a requirement that most other employees spend at least one day every two weeks working from their official duty stations.

Other agencies implemented much more dramatic changes to their telework programs. At least one office within the Department of Health and Human Services restricted telework to one day a week for employees.

The Social Security Administration ended a six-year telework program for some 11,000-12,000 operations employees in 2019, much to the dismay of its union.

Both the Agriculture and Education Departments in 2018 limited telework to one day a week for its employees, another sign that agencies are beginning to reconsider and debate the merits and potential pitfalls of a workplace benefit that’s become commonplace for certain federal employees.

And for some federal employees, 2019 was the year when their agencies picked up and physically moved their office space altogether.

Employees at the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture saw their offices move halfway across the country this year. USDA’s decision to move two of its research bureaus to Kansas City drove much of the existing workforces to quit.

Nearly 160 employees at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management faced a similar decision in 2019: Move to Grand Junction, Colorado, or leave. It’s still unclear exactly how many BLM employees will pick up and move to Colorado or another western state, but Congress fears the agency will, like USDA, experience a similar brain drain.

Uncertainty and anxiety also defined 2019 for many employees at OPM, who spent the year searching for answers as Congress and the Trump administration debated the agency’s proposed merger with the General Services Administration.

Some OPM employees, many of whom are considered human resources experts and are equipped to help other agencies manage major transitions of their own, said they were demoralized and anxious regarding the proposed merger.

Federal News Network’s multi-part look at the merger’s impact on the OPM workforce found the sheer uncertainty of it all had driven top talent to leave the agency for other opportunities or retirement.

Recent data from the Partnership’s Best Places to Work in Federal Government rankings underscore just how poorly some — though certainly not all — OPM subcomponents fared over the past year.

Of course, much of these events occurred in pockets throughout government. No department is the same, and no agency leader will approach big changes or major challenges in the same way.

And even when it seemed like there might be simply too much in flux to keep the federal workforce engaged and motivated in their work in 2019, annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results proved those assumptions wrong.

Federal employees showed up, did their work and apparently enjoyed it in 2019 — at least with about the same enthusiasm as the previous year. Employee engagement across government was relatively stable in 2019.

OPM officials said the results showed the true resiliency of the federal workforce.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration, led by Margaret Weichert in her role as OMB’s deputy director for management, has spent much of 2019 arguing for more agility within the civil service system.

The world is changing too quickly, and a 70-year-old General Schedule classification system isn’t nearly flexible enough to keep up, she’s said.

What happens when fire season outlasts the period where agencies might hire seasonal workers?

Or when highly motivated federal employees attend and pass the administration’s new cybersecurity reskilling academy but can’t find a new job that reflects their grade and new experiences?

Those are all questions for the next year, and maybe even the next decade.

And if 2019 was any indication, questions like these and others will continue to pile up.

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