Federal workers: 2012 could be as tough as 2011

”Rein”

The Post asked John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, to weigh in on the year for federal workers and what 2012 may bring.

Palguta had a 34-year career in the federal government as a human resources and policy specialist, as a senior official with the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Personnel Management, among other agencies.

The Partnership is a nonpartisan think tank that promotes the public sector. The Post has a content-sharing arrangement with the Partnership.

Q. Talk about the landscape for federal employees in 2011.

A. It was not a great year for being a federal employee. One reason is economic. It was a tough year for the country economically. A lot of people are still unemployed, and the deficit is an issue. The negative mood influences what people think about government.

There were calls for cutbacks to pay and benefits, increased contributions to the retirement system, an across-the-board 10 percent cut to the size of the workforce, and other proposals.

Also, we were starting a presidential election cycle. People are campaigning against government: Elect me and I’ll fix that mess in Washington.

Last March, we were hours away from a government shutdown. People [in Congress] were willing to go to the brink. There was a different mood in town than we’ve seen in the past.

We have a perception driven by ideological positioning that federal employees have been on the gravy train. It’s class warfare.

Q. Will things get better next year?

A. In 2012 we’ll be entering the second year of a pay freeze. In recent history we’ve never before had a two-year pay freeze and calls for a third year.

I see glimmers of hope government-wide, but 2012 is going to be a tough year for federal employees. We might see a recalculation of retirement benefits. We may end up with a two-tier situation where they grandfather current employees under the existing rules but change them for new employees.

Some of these things are going to stick; We don’t know which ones.

Q. What about cuts to the budgets of federal agencies?

A. In 2012, many agencies will have to start rolling back the number of employees they have. At the same time, we’re seeing increases in actual work for agencies . At the Social Security Administration, people are applying for benefits in record numbers.

The Securities and Exchange Commission got lambasted for not responding to the economic crisis and then got additional responsibilities.

We are going to see some workforce reductions. Some agencies cannot, with what they’ve been appropriated, maintain the same workforce. Probably the reductions will come with attrition.

Q. Overall, what was the hiring picture last year?

A. Most hiring was replacement hiring. For the first three quarters of fiscal 2011, we had 76,390 people leave. Those were full-time, permanent people. We’re on track to have over 100,000 gone through last quarter. In 2010, we had 91,000 people leave, and most were replaced. I’m guessing that not all of the people who left in 2011 will get replaced.

I don’t see government growing in 2012.

Q. What were some of the bright spots in 2011?

A. Hiring reform was one. It’s still a work in progress, but we are better now than we were three years ago. People realized the system was broken, and [applicants] were complaining. In May 2010, the president wrote a memo to agency heads on the hiring process and it got people’s attention. The time to hire has decreased. We’ve gotten rid of things like [the rule] where you consider just three people for a position. Now you have larger numbers of folks to consider.

Another bright spot is that I hope the beating up on feds has gotten near a peak. It’s going to start declining. People remember that they need government. The good stories will eventually get out.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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