Agencies could use the extended period for projects such as medical research or information technology initiatives involving the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as well as for other projects scheduled to last only for a specific time, under rules proposed Monday by the Office of Personnel Management.
“The intended effect of this change is to allow agencies the flexibility and discretion to hire individuals with knowledge, skills and abilities tailored to a specific project or Congressional funded work that may not be required on a permanent basis or transferrable to other functions of the agency,” the OPM said.
However, agencies could use the authority to fill more of their positions with employees who will be out of a job when their time ends, regardless of its length, said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
“What this does is set the stage for a disposable workforce. It undermines the whole idea of a career workforce,” she said in an interview.
In government personnel lingo, positions that are expected to continue indefinitely are called “permanent” — even though they may turn out not to be — while those with an expected ending date are “temporary” or “term.” The former category typically is used for those expected to last less than one year and the latter for one to four years, although each can be extended up to twice as long with OPM approval.
About 100,000 of the 2.1 million executive branch federal employees were working full time in other-than-permanent status as of September 2019, OPM data shows.
The proposal, which is open to comment through Nov. 10, says that projects for which agencies use term employees in the STEM fields often extend beyond four years because of “circumstances beyond the agency’s control.”
Setting a longer period “may help agencies better compete” for prospective employees by promising longer job security, it said, and those who are hired “may be less likely to leave if they know their employment for the anticipated life of the project is secure” rather than face the uncertainty of a possible extension.
Other short-term projects commonly require hiring employees for an unknown period. “This uncertainty may result in recruitment and retention challenges,” the proposal said.
Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said the change could help agencies attract people who are now dissuaded by the government’s hiring process, which his group and others have long pushed to speed up and simplify.
“For agencies that have very technical expertise, four years is sometimes not enough to bring in people to complete projects of consequence,” he said in a phone interview. “You’re sometimes talking about projects that take a long time to complete.”
No extension beyond 10 years would be allowed, OPM said, adding that it “does not intend this rule to be a substitute for a permanent workforce or for appointing employees to permanent positions for work of a permanent nature.”
However, the National Treasury Employees Union raised that concern at a recent Senate hearing on a recent report by a commission on public service that recommended extending the period, although only up to six years.
“Many agencies have blatantly abused the current term and temp hiring authorities, with some individuals serving for years and years rotating from one temporary position to another without job security and without proper access to benefit programs,” it said.
Term positions further provide “limited career advancement possibilities, and no standing when an individual in one of these appointments applies for a full-time position,” it said.
Term employees are eligible for many of the standard benefits of federal employment but may not qualify for several of the most valuable features, such as an annuity benefit and eligibility to continue health insurance in retirement with the government paying most of the premiums.
Like employees hired into permanent status, term employees gain job protections such as the right to appeal disciplinary actions after serving a probationary period, typically one year. However, there is no right to appeal the end of a fixed period of employment, said Simon of the AFGE.
“It’s a streamlined way to fire people — when your term has ended, they can fire you because your term has ended,” she said.
Although a longer term may help agencies recruit, it still would not provide the individual with the security of a permanent position, she said.
“Ten years is better than four years, but it’s not better than career employment,” she said.