Permanent Fix

Unions say temporary workers are being exploited, and deserve full-time benefits and jobs.

For the federal government, "temporary" has a somewhat nebulous meaning. Laws and regulations specify what it means to be a temporary employee-someone who works on a short-term basis and is not eligible for benefits such as health care. But several labor unions and lawmakers are concerned that agencies could be taking advantage of temporary employees and working them far beyond the spirit of the word.

Each year, the Forest Service hires approximately 15,000 temporary employees to work in forestry, wildlife, recreation, fire suppression, research and other seasonal fields. This time of year, temporary workers make up between 35 percent and 40 percent of the Forest Service's workforce. The National Park Service also hires about 10,000 temporary employees every year during the busy recreational season.

"While carrying out its mission to protect park resources and provide for public enjoyment, the NPS has always relied heavily upon a seasonal workforce to augment its permanent staff," Jerry Simpson, associate director of workforce management for the agency, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia at a June hearing.

It seems logical that the cyclical nature of forest and park service work would warrant temporary employees. But the National Federation of Federal Employees believes agencies are abusing the term "temporary" by hiring the same employees to perform the same work year after year while failing to provide them benefits. A recent NFFE survey of Forest Service employees showed a substantial number have worked under temporary appointments for many seasons. More than half the respondents working under temporary appointments in 2009 had been hired for more than five seasons. On average, they had worked for 12 seasons as temporary workers.

"These long-term temps are truly invisible employees in the sense that current statutes and regulations do not recognize they exist," says Mark Davis, chairman of NFFE's Forest Service Legislative Council. "They are trapped in an endless series of temporary appointments, with no health insurance benefits, no retirement benefits and no job security."

Davis says long-term temps receive no creditable service for even decades of work. They also lack competitive standing, so if the job they've been performing for years were converted to a permanent seasonal job, many would be knocked out of the running if they applied for it.

At the hearing, NFFE National President William Dougan cited Lisa McKinney, who has been performing regular and recurring duties on a timber crew with the Forest Service since 1995, and Joe Katz, a former marine who has held a trails and recreation position for 21 of the past 22 years.

If an agency wants to maintain a temporary position the following season, then no employee in that position can work more than 1,040 hours, or six months, during that season. Dougan said this regulatory limit tends to drive the dismissal of employees rather than an agency's lack of need for them. McKinney was one of many employees terminated mid-project as she butted up against the magic 1,040 number. While workers on McKinney's crew collected unemployment insurance, a new crew unfamiliar with the project was brought on to finish the job, Dougan said.

"I felt like the work we were doing was really important, the management needed this work done, but to disregard the people doing it in such a way was very demoralizing. It feels like we're being cast into a category outside the permanent employees," McKinney says.

"This is not principally an issue of workers' rights, however, but rather federal efficiency and productivity," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said at the hearing. "We must ensure agencies are offering basic benefits rather than long-term temporary employment that does an injustice to both federal employees and taxpayers."

Simpson said a recent Park Service internal survey distributed to about 6,000 seasonal workers showed "great dissatisfaction" with the lack of health and retirement benefits, job security and equity with permanent staff. There was particular dissatisfaction with promotions and within-grade pay increases being given to permanent staff but not seasonal workers. Simpson told lawmakers that 43 percent of respondents were considering leaving NPS during the next year. "The NPS is concerned about the morale and equitable treatment of our seasonal workforce," Simpson said. "The NPS has formed an internal work group to help address these and other employee welfare and morale issues. This group will actively address these concerns within existing regulatory and budget constraints, but it should be noted that adding benefits for term employees could result in a reduction in hiring of temporary employees."

For this very reason, NFFE stresses a focus on a "path to permanence" as a prerequisite for temporary worker reform. "Without it, conversion of temporary jobs to permanent seasonal jobs would lead to a purge of many long-term temps," Davis says.

NFFE urges Congress to pass legislation that would grant long-term temps a certain amount of service credit so they could compete against permanent federal employees for jobs. The union also would like the legislation to give priority consideration to long-term temporary employees if their jobs are converted to permanent status and provide creditable time for their temporary service.

McKinney has little faith that senior agency officials will address the issue of their own volition. "As long as management above the line supervisors isn't interested in making this more just, then it will continue," she says. "They've found every loophole they can use to exploit seasonal people and not have to pay the cost."

Davis says NFFE's proposals have no price tag. "They are merely management tools that would allow an appropriate transition to begin," he says.

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