Federal unions are urging the Office of Personnel Management to put its final stamp on an effort to guard against the potential return of Schedule F as quickly as possible.
In September, OPM issued a proposed rule seeking to clarify and reinforce merit systems principles and other worker protections for career, non-political federal employees.
OPM’s move was a direct attempt to prevent the possible revival of the now-overturned Schedule F executive order from the Trump administration that sought to reclassify tens of thousands of career federal employees to make them at-will and easier to fire.
The Biden administration revoked the order in 2021 before agencies could implement it, but several 2024 Republican presidential candidates have vowed to cut down the federal workforce and reinstate a policy similar to Schedule F.
In a public comment Wednesday on OPM’s proposed rule to hedge against that possible return of Schedule F, a coalition of 14 labor groups called on the agency to “promptly” finalize the rule through the rulemaking process.
The labor coalition, led by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said the proposed rule has specific provisions that would support the career federal workforce for a long time.
“Employees in the competitive service acquire certain statutory rights that cannot be taken away by simply moving the employee’s position into the excepted service,” the coalition’s comment stated. “That is because competitive service rights are grounded not only in civil service laws, but in the Constitution as well.”
The coalition supported several specific provisions of OPM’s proposed rule, including the agency’s push to maintain merit systems protections for federal employees whose positions do get reclassified in the future. Additionally, the unions backed OPM’s proposed addition of procedural steps that must occur before a position can be reclassified. And there was support for another provision that would give employees the chance to appeal an agency’s decision when or if the agency opts to reclassify the employee’s position.
The coalition further said it supports the clarification that “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making and policy-advocating” work is strictly non-career, political work.
“As OPM states, there has been a long, consistent understanding that this term should encompass only a narrow category of political appointees,” the comment states. “The Merit Systems Protection Board … has explained that the term is ‘only a shorthand way of describing positions to be filled by so-called political appointees.’”
The group of federal unions, however, isn’t the only voice coming forward over the proposed rule from OPM. So far, there are about 40 comments on Regulations.gov regarding the anti-Schedule F proposal. Many comments from agencies, stakeholders, federal employees and federal retirees voiced support for the rule.
“In a time when preserving the merit-based and non-partisan principles of the federal workforce is of paramount importance, this proposed rule stands as a beacon of clarity and fairness,” one comment stated. “It is essential to safeguard the rights and protections of federal employees while also maintaining flexibility for necessary personnel movements.”
Schedule F “was widely condemned by members of both parties, as well as good government groups, academics and federal employee unions as a threat to the integrity, professionalism and independence of the federal workforce,” another comment stated. “The proposed rule would restore and strengthen the civil service system that has served our nation well for more than a century.”
Though many federal workforce experts said OPM’s proposed rule is a step in the right direction, some raised concerns that it may not be enough to fully prevent Schedule F from returning in the future. In theory, another administration could issue its own regulations on the matter.
Others in the public comments came out against the proposed rule from OPM and said the agency should instead focus on other priorities.
“I am shocked and disappointed at OPM brazenly weaponizing the federal human resources process and behaving as if this proposed rule is their most important objective when there are open Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports identifying cybersecurity and classification as critical functions needing improvement for decades,” one comment stated. “I find USAJobs to be the worst employment search engine online. GAO has also cited OPM for serious deficiencies. Rather than address core responsibilities integral to the OPM mission, current leadership chooses to myopically scrutinize a tiny fraction of excepted service government jobs for political reasons.”
Still, the labor coalition’s call for a final rule displays a largely united front of unions and other stakeholders in favor of protections against Schedule F or a similar policy in the future.
“Today’s comments are … a clear sign that where there is a threat to the civil service in any workplace, workers and their unions will stand together to fight back,” NTEU National President Doreen Greenwald said Wednesday. “We are grateful that so many respected labor unions have joined the cause to keep our federal agencies staffed with qualified professionals who are dedicated to serving the American people.”
The proposed rule will remain open to public comments until Nov. 17. OPM did not immediately respond to Federal News Network’s request for a timeline for issuing a final rule once the comment period ends.