When Donald Trump was elected on Nov. 8, the National Weather Service Employees Organization grew anxious. One of the president-elect’s proposals is “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce,” except in the case of the military, public safety or public health.
So, are meteorologists in the business of “public safety”? The National Weather Service’s mission is to “protect lives and property” through forecasts and warnings, and a straightforward reading would suggest the answer is yes. But the NWSEO isn’t making any assumptions.
This week, the 4,000-member labor organization began distributing a memo on the Hill describing the public-safety nature of the National Weather Service, hoping to sway members of Congress to help shield its workers from a potential hiring lockdown.
The memo cites a 2012 National Academy of Sciences study concluding that the quality of warnings corresponds to “ample, fully-trained staff . . . as severe weather unfolds.”
The study continued, “Appropriate levels of staffing, beyond normal fair weather staffing, during major weather events, are critical for fulfilling the NWS’s ‘protection of life’ mission.”
Congress would not be able to directly block the National Weather Service from being affected by a hiring freeze, but “it is our hope that those members of Congress who are supportive of the agency’s mission and who are in contact with the incoming administration would bring the importance of ensuring that our forecast operations are fully staffed to the incoming administration’s attention,” said Richard Hirn, counsel for the NWSEO.
A hiring freeze in itself may not pose a problem for the Weather Service, but the agency, which is tasked with issuing hazardous-weather warnings and forecasts for all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, already has hundreds of empty desks that haven’t been filled for years, said Lisa Luciani, executive director of the NWSEO.
“There are currently 650 vacant positions across the NWS, many of them are ‘Emergency Essential,’ ” Luciani said in an email, “meaning those employees are critical to the life-saving mission of the NWS, so they must report to work (in hurricanes, floods, blizzards, furloughs, etc.).”
The employee organization said it has pushed the leaders of the National Weather Service to fill the gaps, to no avail, all while the number of nonmanagerial employees declined from 3,877 in September 2010 to 3,430 in January 2016, according to records kept by the NWSEO.
“Each year, there is a different reason why the vacancies are so slow to be filled,” Luciani said. “In 2013 and 2014, NWS said it was sequestration, and they have more recently blamed the issue on the NOAA Workforce Management Office.
“Meanwhile, we’ve had reports of offices running with a 25 percent vacancy rate and employees working overtime weeks without a day off.”
In 2015, members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology requested a review of Weather Service staffing levels from the Government Accountability Office. Luciani said that review has started with visits to understaffed offices. A GAO spokesman confirmed that the work is underway and is expected to be completed in March or April.
The National Weather Service has been “working diligently to overcome the hiring deficit that began during FY13-14 due to sequestration and a hiring freeze within NOAA,” Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email.
The process is a challenge because of the vast number of vacancies and the time it takes for new employees to gain security clearances, Buchanan explained. The Weather Service has improved the process though various methods, she said, including an agreement with the NWSEO to hire new employees at a lower General Schedule (GS) level to speed up new hires.
“We continue to work to improve the choke points that have clogged the hiring system in the past,” Buchanan said.