The scope of the freeze has been under debate since Trump ordered it as one of his first official actions, while allowing for exceptions that were not defined.
Until Tuesday’s more detailed instructions, the administration had issued only a brief memo last week to make clear that an exception for the “military” applied only to uniformed personnel, and that civilian employees of the Defense Department were subject to the freeze — unless they fell under one of the other exceptions that are at an agency’s discretion.
That memo also clarified that confirmed job offers from the government as of noon Jan. 22 with a start date before Feb. 22 would be honored — but if the reporting date was Feb. 22 or later, or was indefinite, agencies may revoke the offer.
However, until Tuesday’s memo, the administration had not addressed numerous other special situations nor had it spelled out the exceptions for national security or public safety. During that silence, one of the largest departments, Veterans Affairs, announced that it was walling off more than 100 occupations as implicating public safety. Those ranged from medical personnel to laundry workers and chaplains at its medical facilities and extended to caretakers and tractor operators at veterans cemeteries.
Tuesday’s memo suggests that in deciding which jobs should be excepted for national security or public safety reasons, agencies should refer to long-standing guidance used in deciding which employees must continue to work during partial government shutdowns. The most recent such shutdown occurred in 2013, although there have been several threats since then, and agencies regularly update their contingency plans for such events.
It also says that agencies may request additional exceptions, although they would have to make the case to OPM, the government’s central personnel agency, that the positions are essential and could not be filled by reassigning existing employees.
The guidance says the freeze does not apply to:
- Presidential appointees, regardless of whether they require Senate confirmation, and including political Senior Executive Service members.
- Hiring of seasonal and other short-term employees to meet “traditionally recurring seasonal workloads” so long as the agency informs OMB of its plans in advance.
- Hiring by the U.S. Postal Service, which does not draw appropriations from Congress.
- Civilian hiring by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA.
- Appointments in the Pathways Internship and Presidential Management Fellows programs, which are temporary positions that can lead to permanent jobs; conversions to permanent positions in those programs as well as in the Veterans Recruitment Act also may continue.
- Time-restricted appointments in fellowship or professional exchange type programs.
- Reinstatement of federal employees returning from injury compensation or military service.
- “Career ladder” promotions of current employees, which provide for a higher pay grade, and thus higher pay, upon successfully completing a service period.
- Reassignments or details of current employees within an agency or between agencies, as well as voluntary transfers of senior executives between agencies, under certain circumstances.
The guidance also reiterates that agencies are not to hire contractors to backfill vacancies that cannot be filled because of the freeze. Specifically, they are not to hire for “services that are substantially similar to those that would have been provided” by a federal employee.
However, even the latest guidance does not address all the issues that have been raised in the wake of the freeze. For example, it does not spell out the “limited circumstances” under which agencies may create new positions, nor does it address why agencies, or parts of them, apart from USPS that are self-funding are included in the freeze.
The memo also does not address how long the freeze is to last. The original presidential memo told OMB and OPM to produce within 90 days a long-term plan to reduce the federal workforce by attrition. After such a plan is put in place, the original memo is to expire. That plan could include continuing a hiring freeze, with exceptions, until a certain percentage reduction is achieved.
Both OPM and OMB are operating with acting directors.