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Officials plan to expand federal hiring despite spending freeze

Jobs at the Pentagon are unlikely to take a hit; the Defense Department is considered a growth area.
Jobs at the Pentagon are unlikely to take a hit; the Defense Department is considered a growth area. (James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)

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By Joe Davidson
Thursday, January 28, 2010

If your boss announced plans to freeze spending for three years, you would hold your breath and ask, "What does it mean for me?"

Well, most federal workers, and those who would like to join their ranks, can exhale. The budget freeze proposed by boss-in-chief Barack Obama isn't likely to cost them their jobs, in fact federal employment probably will continue to grow.

The reason: The departments exempted from the freeze -- Defense, State, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs -- are growth areas in the government. Entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, also will be untouched, meaning the people running them have no worries.

Neither, to a large extent, do job seekers.

Last year's prediction by the administration that Uncle Sam would hire several hundred thousand new civilian employees over a four-year period essentially may be unaffected by the freeze. "The large bulk of those hires will move forward as expected," said one senior government official.

The administration is planning to announce soon what it hopes will be an improved process to bring them onboard. The Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget have been working to overhaul the federal hiring process, which currently is such a frightful mess that many good people are scared away.

The reworked USAJobs Web site (http://www.usajobs.gov), unveiled this week, is one part of that. More aspects of hiring reform will be announced in the coming days, probably when the president's budget is released on Monday. But don't expect any major reform of civil service to be announced that soon. Changing the pay and General Schedule classification systems for federal workers remain on the administration's agenda, but they're not ripe yet.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, left what she described as a "very general briefing" by the OMB on Tuesday without information on how the freeze might affect her members. But the number crunchers didn't make her pessimistic.

"Since it is a top-line freeze, some agencies might get more than last year while others get less," she said. "That being said, recent cuts in contracting out can also result in some savings that could be reinvested in the agencies."

Of course there will be another freeze that will affect the pocketbooks of a few federal employees. That's the cap on salaries of top political appointees, which the administration plans to impose. As my colleague Ed O'Keefe reported, about 1,200 of those in the top ranks, political appointees, including those in the Senior Executive Service, who make more than $100,000, would be hit by the freeze. That does not include top civil servants, including those in the SES, many of whom make significantly more than the freeze amount.

But even though many current workers will not be hurt by the freeze, it could still leave some out in the cold by delaying workplace improvements they've pushed for.

"We have some agencies that have not recovered from the Bush years, the Bureau of Prisons being one," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "They absolutely cannot go on without staffing increases and more resources. A freeze would be really disastrous."

AFGE has waged a long and sometimes angry battle to get more staffing in the federal prison system. The inmate-to-staff ratio is 150 to 1, and in some cases runs as high as 300 to 1, according to the union.

"The days of 'doing more with less' must end," Bryan Lowry, president of the AFGE's Council of Prison Locals, said in November. "If management continues to operate the BOP under its current conditions -- understaffed, overcrowded, and with an increasingly violent inmate population -- more tragic incidents such as the murder of Jose Rivera [an officer killed on duty in 2008 at the federal penitentiary in Atwater, Calif.] are sure to follow."

Officials in agencies that will be hit with a budget cap should be very careful about cutting their staffs, warns Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. "It would be a mistake to ignore the increased role government has to play in times of trouble," he said. "Federal employees are called to do more with greater impact when times are challenging."

When it comes to federal employees, he added, "these are investments and not costs."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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