OPM issues special hiring authority to fill emergency personnel needs

On Friday, the Office of Personnel Management granted special hiring authority to federal agencies in immediate need of additional or special staff in the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist attacks. Under the emergency hiring authority, federal managers can fill positions affected by the Sept. 11 catastrophe using excepted appointments, which are excluded from competitive civil service procedures. Ellen Tunstall, assistant director for employment policy at OPM, said the special authority is for "guards or protective service people. The National Security Agency might require investigators of some sort, Justice might have needs for marshals. It can run the gamut for any agency that is either responding to this or is understaffed because they lost employees in the attack." In a memo issued to agency heads, OPM Director Kay Coles James also reminded agencies that they can bring back retired federal employees and former feds that left the government under buyout programs to deal with emergency personnel needs. Under normal circumstances, re-employed federal retirees are required by law to take a reduction in pay or benefits if they want to return to government, but managers can request that this reduction in pay be waived. Tunstall said OPM is prepared to give agency heads the authority to grant waivers, and will respond to such requests immediately. In addition, certain statutes governing buyouts state that if employees who accept buyouts return to the government within five years, they must repay the entire amount of the buyout. Agency heads can request that these repayments be waived for personnel who are the "only qualified applicants available for the positions and possess expertise and special qualifications to replace persons lost in the tragedies or to provide direct support in the rescue, recovery, investigatory and other phases related to the tragedies," the memo stated. Federal managers have the following options for filling urgent needs with excepted service appointments. These options are explained in Title 5, Chapter 1, Part 213 of the Code of Federal Regulations:

  • Temporary emergency need: Individuals may be appointed for up to one year.
  • 30-day critical need: Individuals may be appointed for 30 days and the appointment can be extended for an additional 30 days. Under the law, an agency may not employ the same individual under this authority for more than 60 days in any 12-month period.

OPM also granted managers special authority to hire personnel in senior-level positions. Usually OPM must individually approve appointments for personnel with special, senior-level expertise. But under authority granted Friday, "they don't have to come to OPM and ask for it. If the Defense Department wants to bring on a counterterrorist expert, they don't have to ask, they can just do it and tell us after the fact. Normally we would have to review it," explained Joyce Edwards, director of OPM's Office of Executive Resources Management. OPM has also pledged to immediately process requests for Senior Executive Service emergency appointments, which are explained in Title 5, Chapter 1, Part 317 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

OPM also suggested that federal managers contract with private sector temporary firms to meet emergency needs and reminded agencies of their authority to make appointments of 120 days or less without clearing their career transition assistance program or interagency career transition plan. Those programs give special selection status to employees displaced by government downsizing. Another immediate source of personnel are employees on re-employment priority lists, OPM said.