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Defense Spells Out Broad Swath of Civilians Exempt From Hiring Freeze

Department acknowledges impact, but calls freeze an opportunity.

Defense Department components will have broad authority to exempt positions from President Trump’s hiring freeze, according to guidance the Pentagon issued Thursday.

A senior Defense official conceded the hiring moratorium will have an impact on the operations of the department, but said the freeze will provide an opportunity to identify its most critical positions. Going forward, specific exemptions will be spelled out by the secretaries of each service, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff’s office, the inspector general’s office or the deputy chief management officer. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who signed the guidance, created five different categories of potential exemption: positions necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities, those determined additionally necessary by the aforementioned officials, exemptions required by law, exemptions that do not require approval and those that require advanced coordination with department leadership.

The Defense official could not state the number of civilian positions that will not be affected by the freeze, as department leadership must still determine the specifics. Positions exempted for national security and public safety include:

  • Those required for cybersecurity
  • Those in support of scheduled military operations, deployments, exercises, training and contingency planning
  • Medical treatment and public health
  • Law enforcement and firefighters
  • Operational support to the president, Defense secretary or chairman of the joint chiefs
  • Those involved in treaty enforcement; preventing and providing support to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and suicide; and mortuary affairs
  • Nuclear reactor and weapon safety and security
  • Those reserved for foreign national employees or funded by foreign military sales
  • Civilian mariners in the Military Sealift Command and positions in shipyards and depots tasked with inventory and maintenance of equipment

Defense officials can also exempt employees not in those positions if they certify in writing the necessity to maintain national security. Leadership may approve the exemptions on an individual or group basis. Those requesting the exemption must demonstrate a risk above that which accompanies “every decision not to hire,” and prove other personnel cannot be reallocated to fill the need.

Term and temporary employees may be extended to the maximum allowable time limit. Employees exercising return rights following an overseas or active duty deployment, returning after a workplace injury and dual status military technicians number among the exemptions required by law. As spelled out in governmentwide guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, those with a hiring date prior to Jan. 22, those with Pathways appointments, political appointees and internal ladder promotions can all be exempted without approval.

Defense services and activities can hire seasonal and short-term employees for seasonal work, but must coordinate with the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. Voluntary Senior Executive Service transfers and other exchange programs also fall in that category. The department will not implement anything that is in conflict with a collective bargaining agreement.

The Defense Department typically sees an attrition rate of 7.5 percent to 8 percent annually. A senior official said Thursday the freeze presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“Because all of the department’s workforces are essential, there will be an impact,” the official said. “But at the same time, there is an opportunity here. We can look at how the department manages resources in the most effective and efficient way.”

The official added the freeze and the upcoming exemption decisions will “for sure” inform how the department implements the forthcoming, presidentially mandated long-term federal employee attrition plan being developed by OMB and OPM. Defense and its hiring freeze implementation will “be part of the governmentwide plan to optimize the entire federal civilian workforce,” the official said. 

Image via Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock.