The federal government shed 4,900 jobs between March and April, according to numbers the Labor Department released on Friday.
Including the Postal Service, Uncle Sam actually lost 8,000 jobs last month, the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed. The country added 165,000 jobs in April because of growth in the private sector, but experienced a decline in public sector employment across federal, state and local government. Unemployment is at 7.5 percent, a four-year low.
The figures reveal a federal workforce that is slowly shrinking: Civilian employment numbers fell by 59,000 jobs during the past 12 months. The civilian workforce has hovered around 2.1 million since 2012, with the most federal employees in California, Texas, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
An increasing number of federal retirements as well as hiring freezes and slowdowns at many agencies are driving the reduction in jobs, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “The hiring is not down because there is no work to be done, but rather there is no money due to the sequester to bring new folks on board,” Palguta said. One exception is the Veterans Affairs Department, which is exempt from the mandatory automatic budget cuts.
The government hired fewer new full-time employees in fiscal 2012 compared to those who left service, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. There were 219,220 employees who left government in fiscal 2012; of that figure, 69,215 retired. Federal retirements also are sharply up in fiscal 2013 compared to fiscal 2012, contributing to a loss of institutional knowledge and the overall rate of separation from the civil service for other reasons. Since the beginning of fiscal 2013, 78,104 federal workers have retired -- and there are five more months left in the current fiscal year.
Palguta said the government has “a very thin bench” and that human resources leaders are concerned over the lack of management talent in the agencies. “It starts becoming a vicious cycle in terms of maintaining capability,” he said. There’s not enough consistent focus on maintaining and investing in the federal workforce, particularly in agencies that are stretched thin, Palguta said, until a disaster happens, like the 2008 economic meltdown or Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “You would think the goal here would be to avoid a breakdown,” Palguta said. “If you wait until something breaks, there will be recriminations and finger-pointing, but then it’s like, ‘Well we better fix this.’”
The size of the federal workforce would grow by 6,180 employees under President Obama’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget. The departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs would account for the estimated 0.3 percent increase in full-time civilian employees in executive agencies between this year and next, according to the budget blueprint. The administration would add staff to boost medical care for veterans as well as hire employees to work on cybersecurity, background checks for guns, border protection and immigration reform.
The size of the government’s total workforce, including military service members, the Postal Service and legislative and judicial branches actually is projected to decrease under the president’s fiscal 2014 budget by 3.6 percent, from about 4.3 million to 4.1 million employees. The reduction largely is due to fewer Postal Service employees as a result of buyouts and fewer military service members because of the force reduction in Afghanistan.
Many congressional Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, want to decrease the federal workforce through attrition, which means hiring fewer employees to replace those who leave the government. Ryan’s plan, for example, proposes reducing the workforce by 10 percent through attrition by 2015.
Palguta said calls to shrink the government workforce will continue despite the latest numbers showing a decline in government employment. “In some cases, we can probably do with fewer employees,” Palguta said, but in other areas we don’t have enough. Leaders must look at where the workforce needs are, instead of just calling across-the-board reductions, but that’s not the debate right now, he said.