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Federal personnel chief quits abruptly amid coronavirus planning for the workforce of 2.1 million

OPM Director Dale Cabaniss addresses a Senior Executive Service orientation at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Nov. 22.
OPM Director Dale Cabaniss addresses a Senior Executive Service orientation at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Nov. 22. (U.S. Office of Personnel Management)

The federal personnel director quit with no notice Tuesday after five months on the job, leaving the agency that oversees workplace policy for 2.1 million civil servants with no leader amid the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Office of Personnel Management chief Dale Cabaniss resigned in frustration following months of tension with the White House budget office and more recently with its newly configured staffing office and a political appointee the office installed at OPM in the last month, according to three people familiar with her decision. Cabaniss thought that she was being micromanaged and that her authority was not respected, the people said.

An agency spokesperson said in a statement that Cabaniss’s deputy, Michael Rigas, would take over the agency on an acting basis.

As the administration prepared to confront the threat the novel coronavirus posed to federal workers, Cabaniss found herself and her agency sidelined by the White House budget office.

As human resources manager of the federal workforce, Cabaniss was unable to communicate clear, timely messages to agency managers on how they should respond to the growing public health threat, said the people familiar with her decision, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss her resignation.

Guidance to managers on when they should send their staffs home to telework was often vague and came weeks after U.S. health officials urged Americans to work from home and minimize contact with others. Even now, managers say privately they have not received clear instruction from the Trump administration on how to manage their workforce during the crisis.

Cabaniss, 58, has deep experience with federal personnel issues and was respected by her staff and by Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, where she served for two decades as a top Senate aide overseeing civil service issues. Her departure was first reported by Politico.

Since her Senate confirmation in October, Cabaniss was viewed as restoring morale to the agency after a tumultuous two years of shifting missions and leadership. OPM’s government-wide mission is to administer federal health insurance policies, retirement claims, benefits and workforce policy.

President Trump fired his first Senate-confirmed personnel director, Jeff Tien Han Pon, in October 2018 after seven months because he resisted the administration’s plan to dismantle the agency and farm out its functions to other departments, including the White House.

Pon was replaced by Margaret Weichert, a senior official in the White House Office of Management and Budget, who pushed the plan for 18 months as a way to shrink a troubled agency whose mission was disjointed.

But the idea had little traction in Congress, even among Republicans, and in December, the president abandoned the effort. Weichert had continued to push the breakup when she returned to the budget office. She and Cabaniss clashed over multiple issues, with Cabaniss feeling that her authority was diminished.

Weichert resigned from the administration this month but has stayed on during the coronavirus crisis. It is not clear for how long.

In recent weeks, the White House installed a new liaison at OPM, an attorney who does not have experience with federal personnel issues but tried to exert authority over Cabaniss, according to the people familiar with the situation.

The White House Personnel Office, which has been in transition in recent months under the leadership of 29-year-old John McEntee, a Trump confidant, also exerted a level of influence on staffing decisions that she found untenable, the people said.