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Firing federal workers isn’t as easy as Trump makes it seem in his budget

U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney reaches to receive an executive order entitled “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch” from President Trump after signing it in the Oval Office on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Under President Trump’s budget proposal, federal employees at many agencies may need to acquaint themselves with a lately dormant but still much-feared term: Reduction in Force.
If Trump’s budget is enacted into law, it would hike defense spending by $54 billion — and pay for it with an equal cut in domestic spending at other federal agencies. Trump has said that reducing the size of the federal workforce — better known by its acronym, RIF — is a top priority.
It may not be as easy as Trump would like.
Laying off federal workers requires going through a formal process that can be lengthy, expensive and disruptive to the workplace, experts say. And various legal and union rights may come into play, as they do for the similarly complex process of firing a federal worker for misconduct.
Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF, said few agencies know how to oversee the RIF process. “They’re going to find fairly quickly that it’s a lot harder to cut than it seems like it would be,” Neal said.
RIFs have not been used widely for decades. It is a complex process that catalogues and ranks employees based on the work they do and where, their employment status, veteran status, length of service and performance ratings.
Employees in eliminated jobs in some cases may be able to displace lower-ranked employees while keeping their higher pay rates temporarily — meaning the projected savings don’t always materialize.
And there are job placement rights, appeal rights and severance pay entitlements for those ultimately let go. In some cases, unions are able to bargain on behalf of their members.

National presidents of two major unions that represent federal employees share their thoughts on the Trump administration's proposed budget. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

“Whether it’s a unit that’s represented by a labor organization or not, the process is fairly onerous,” said David Cann, American Federation of Government Employees director of field services and education. “These things are being discussed rashly with no consideration of how long it takes to accomplish it. It shouldn’t take a year but it can.”
He added: “If it is done improperly, people can appeal it and get their job back and get back pay. It can be expensive. And inefficient.”
There are additional realities. Congress, which ultimately holds the power to pass the budget for the year beginning Oct. 1, 2017, may not be so cooperative; early reaction Thursday to Trump’s budget was not enthusiastic, even among Republicans.

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And agencies typically are given broad flexibility to manage their own budgets. Programs under the budget ax can look first to reducing travel, training and office equipment purchases. Instead of laying off employees, they can put them on temporary unpaid furloughs — time off without pay — as many did in response to across-the-board budget cuts imposed in 2013.
In the past, agencies have often looked first to attrition. The Trump administration already has put the first such step in place, imposing a general hiring freeze on the federal workforce — with exceptions for positions involving national security or public safety. That same action called for the administration to produce a separate long-term plan to reduce the workforce by attrition.
Neal said that normal attrition in the federal workforce is unlikely to achieve the massive reductions that Trump proposes — and certainly not within the fiscal year starting in October. Turnover doesn’t always take place where agencies want it to happen, he added.
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the depth of the cuts required at many agencies would make it very difficult to avoid lay-offs. “I can’t imagine how you’d take some of these reductions and don’t have a reduction in the workforce, which is exactly what the president talked about,” Mulvaney said.
However, he added: “We gave a great deal of flexibility to the secretaries and the agency directors. So how they manage that would be up to them on sort of a case-by-case basis.”

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Trump’s budget blueprint is sparse on explaining how spending reductions might translate into job cuts.
Reducing an agency’s budget by a certain percentage does not necessarily mean the workforce would be cut by that same amount. That’s especially the case with agencies that devote much of their spending to contracts and grants, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in contrast to agencies that are more labor-intensive per dollar, such as the Department of Labor.
As of September, there were 2.096 million total executive branch employees, not including the intelligence community and the self-funding U.S. Postal Service, according to an Office of Personnel Management database.
Excluding temporary, seasonal and part-time employees puts the number at 1.867 million.

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One scenario in which programs would be compelled to go through the RIF process: If the entire agency is being shut down. The Trump administration budget proposes shuttering 19 independent agencies, mostly small boards and commissions, along with several sub-agencies of Cabinet departments.
The one agency workforce the budget specifically targets is the Environmental Protection Agency, where an overall spending reduction of 31 percent “would result in approximately 3,200 fewer positions at the agency” — about a 20 percent reduction of a workforce of about 15,600.
“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it. So I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency — that the president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that,” Mulvaney said.
Other agencies facing substantial cuts include the Departments of State, Agriculture, Labor and Health and Human Services. Further reductions could lie ahead due to a recently issued executive order calling for a government-wide reorganization to make agencies more efficient, with a formal proposal expected in about a year.
However, budgets have to go through Congress. Even some elements of the upcoming reorganization plan would require Capitol Hill’s approval.

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According to the Office of Personal Management, of the 197,000 who separated from federal service in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, only 205 were laid off.
Over the last five years, the OPM data show, 1.25 million employees left the government, including nearly 450,000 who quit, nearly another 400,000 who retired and more than 380,000 who were fired or hit the end of temporary work arrangements.
Out of the 1.867 million current permanent, nonseasonal, full-time employees in that database, more than 280,000, or 15 percent, already are retirement-eligible.
Agencies also can offer incentives to entice employees to leave, creating vacancies.
One way is to allow employees to retire before they are eligible. With OPM’s permission, agencies facing job cuts can allow employees to retire at any age with at least 25 years of service, or at age 50 or above with at least 20 years tenure, subject to a reduction in the annuity in some cases.
The other incentive is a buyout. Agencies can offer those with OPM’s permission to reorganize, although most agencies would need authority from Congress to offer them for downsizing.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has asked his staff to review whether voluntary buyouts across the government would be a better way to shrink the workforce because they provide incentives for retirement-eligible and other employees to leave.
Congress could also face pressure to increase the long-existing cap of $25,000 for a buyout, as it did in boosting the maximum at the Defense Department to $40,000 in a law passed late in 2016.
Early retirement and buyout incentives were offered widely during the Clinton administration’s downsizing of the federal workforce but have been used relatively little since then. OPM data show that agencies offered fewer than 3,000 buyouts and fewer than 1,000 early retirements in 2016 — about 36,000 and about 11,000, respectively, over the last five years.
The Defense Department does not need OPM’s permission or further legislation to offer either early retirements or buyouts for any reason, although it may not make much use of either: The Trump budget proposal calls for an increase in defense spending, of about 10 percent.