President Trump, shown above Tuesday on the White House South Lawn, signed in 2017 a presidential memorandum instituting a federal hiring freeze that included this caution: “Contracting outside the Government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Columnist

President Trump wasted no time implementing a campaign promise when he imposed a federal hiring freeze on his first Monday in office. His Jan. 23, 2017, presidential memorandum doing that included this caution: “Contracting outside the Government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.”

Yet the Trump administration has more than doubled the value of federal government contracts with temporary help service agencies, according to a new report.

These agencies provide workers on a temporary basis, but the contracts can be renewed, meaning “the term ‘temporary’ is often a misnomer,” according to the study by the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates worker rights.

It says the $1.7 billion the government spent on the contracts in 2018 was five times the amount it spent in 2008. “By far,” wrote authors Chris Schwartz and Laura Padin, “the largest increase came in the past two years, when spending jumped from $812 million in 2016 to $1.7 billion in 2018.”

Despite the Republican platform pushing limited government, they said, “the Trump administration and its allies in Congress are merely outsourcing government work to temporary staffing agencies, which degrades the quality of those jobs and reduces accountability over the quality of that work.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget defended the use of contractors, saying they are needed “to bridge staffing shortages or to bring in highly-specialized labor for specific projects.”

Using the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 50,000 medical professional vacancies as an example, the budget office said employing contractors “to fill that immediate need ensures our veterans can get the care they need and deserve.” Statements from the Indian Health Service, which is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Bureau of Prisons made similar points.

Contracting out federal work often does not save taxpayer money, according to some government and private studies. In the case of health care, the use of the temporary workers can compromise consistent patient care.

An August 2018 report on the Indian Health Service by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said “these temporary providers are more costly than salaried employees and can interrupt patients’ continuity of care.”

A September 2011 analysis by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), an independent government watchdog organization, found that “Federal government employees were less expensive than contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications POGO reviewed.”

A March 2008 GAO finding said a Defense Department agency was paying almost 27 percent more for contract workers than for similar government employees.

Furthermore, contracting out federal work to the temp agencies “degrades pay and working conditions,” according to Schwartz and Padin.

Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, they said temporary help agency employees make 41 percent less than workers with standard employment arrangements and that only 13 percent of the agency staffers have employer-provided health insurance, compared with 53 percent of the other workers.

The National Employment Law Project said “the Trump administration’s desire to privatize government-provided healthcare services is the largest factor driving increased use of temporary help services.” Those services include the use of traveling doctors and nurses, as well as contract dentists, pharmacists, therapists, social workers and medical billing staffers.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie pushed against the privatization notion in a NPR interview earlier this month: “Well, I just presented a $220 billion budget, a budget that also calls for an employee base of 390,000. Ten years ago, the budget was $98 billion, and we had 280,000 employees. So if we’re going about privatizing this, we’re going about it in a very strange way.”

Federal labor organizations and the Professional Services Council, which represents companies doing business with the government, have disagreed on the right mix of contractors. But they concur that making federal employment more attractive would reduce the need for outside workers.

“Hiring freezes, budget uncertainties . . . and the challenges of recruiting under the threat of another government shutdown combine with the long civil-service hiring process to make it harder to hire civilian employees,” said David J. Berteau, the council’s president and chief executive. “This is especially true in high-skill areas such as medical services or cybersecurity. PSC has long held that these problems need to be addressed.”

Federal union leaders have long opposed excessive contracting out of government work. “The real problem is a persistent lack of investment in the federal workforce that can make filling permanent jobs very difficult for federal agencies,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Instead of filling the empty VA positions, American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said: “They contract out for ridiculously expensive, unaccountable temps. . . . Spend more, get less, and no contractor accountability for results. That about sums up this administration’s approach to governing.”