The employees of the National Weather Service are demoralized, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. They are understaffed and spread thin, covering shifts and positions beyond what they were hired to fill. The weather never sleeps, and apparently neither does the Weather Service.
Between 2014 and 2016, the number of vacant staff meteorologist positions increased 57 percent. In the same time, management vacancies decreased by 29 percent.
The mission of the Weather Service — to protect lives and property — is critical, so the employees are completing the tasks. But it comes at a cost. The GAO used some pretty gloomy language to describe the employees’ current state of mind (emphasis mine):
- “. . . operational unit managers and staff experienced stress, fatigue, and reduced morale resulting from their efforts to cover for vacancies.”
- “. . . but the long-term result has been that employees are fatigued and morale is low.”
- “. . . staff are getting worn down covering extra forecasting shifts.”
- “One operational unit manager we interviewed said staff in his unit were demoralized because they had continued to cover the workload for multiple vacancies.”
- “. . . staff are concerned that the agency may be intentionally leaving vacant positions open to downsize.”
- “NWS headquarters officials acknowledged that vacancies had created challenges and stress …”
Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Organization, said the report came as no surprise.
“For the last six years we have been asking the agency to correct the arduous staffing conditions,” Sobien told The Washington Post. “It is our hope that now the agency will finally acknowledge the challenging working conditions of its employees and take some action to fix the problem.”
It’s not as if the critical work isn’t getting done. According to the report, staffers and managers are adjusting work and leave schedules to perform extra tasks to “fill” the vacancies, which “at times led to their inability to complete other key tasks, such as providing severe weather information support to state and local emergency managers.”
That past part, often referred to as “decision support services,” is a key mission of the Weather Service, and something that Director Louis Uccellini personally emphasizes as a key component of the future of the organization.
“NWS is committed to hiring to the level that our Congressional appropriations allow, and we’ll do so as quickly as possible,” the Weather Service said in an email statement. “We are gaining ground to eliminate the hiring backlog, thanks in part to a new department-wide human resources system.”
“Filling vacancies was constrained by past federal and agency-wide hiring freezes and normal attrition through retirements and employee transfers,” the statement said.
Weather Service officials told the GAO that the unfilled chairs are not for lack of trying, outlining the bureaucratic hoops they need to jump through to complete the hiring process.
Service employees are hired through NOAA’s Workforce Management Office, or WFMO, which is where they say the system loses momentum.
In 2016, the GAO found that the duration of the hiring process from start to completion took anywhere from 64 to 467 days. Managers complained that there is little to no information about the status of their open positions. When they tried to communicate with the WFMO staff directly, they still couldn’t get updates.
The GAO report says several of the Weather Service officials called the WFMO “a black hole.” The WFMO told the GAO the contractors they hired to help with the backlog also can’t meet the demand.
None of the parties are happy with the situation, and the GAO offered two suggestions to help grease the wheels: routine communication between the WFMO and Weather Service managers, and an evaluation of whether the Weather Service is doing all it can to reduce the hiring backlog. NOAA agreed with those suggestions.
In the meantime, give your favorite meteorologist a hug.
This story has been updated with a statement from the National Weather Service.