Standardizing policies will also help improve morale at the agency by showing workers rules will be enforced fairly, witnesses tell lawmakers.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin documenting policies and procedures for dealing with misconduct among temporary employees, potentially addressing a major cause of low morale.
As the federal government’s disaster-response organization, FEMA employs 22,000 permanent and temporary workers. Temporary employees often act as first responders when disaster strikes and make up more than half the agency’s workforce. However, a recent Government Accountability Office report found FEMA had no clearly defined policies and procedures to deal with these workers’ potential misconduct.
In a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on GAO’s findings Thursday, Chairman Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., underscored the inequity of the agency’s failure to outline offenses and penalties, saying, “everybody’s got to know what the rules of the game are.”
Though he noted the majority of employees serve honorably, acting FEMA Deputy Administrator David Grant said, “one incident of substantiated misconduct is one too many.”
Overall, FEMA doesn’t deal with many incidents of wrongdoing. GAO found fewer than 600 complaints between 2014 and 2016, including an employee taking illegal gifts from contractors and a supervisor verbally harassing workers. Less than 2 percent of the agency’s total workforce was subject to complaints.
Even so, the lack of clear rules regarding misconduct hints at a larger issue negatively impacting FEMA’s employee morale. Chris Currie, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues, said many FEMA employees distrust upper-level managers and believe they unfairly enforce the rules. Without defined policies and procedures, similar misconduct cases may be handled differently, playing into this notion of unequal treatment of lower level employees.
In addition to clearly defining procedures, Grant said FEMA began working with the inspector general to implement a system to manage misconduct cases and also took steps to help employees engage with managers. The agency’s new administrator, Brock Long, expects top FEMA officials to “get out from behind their desks” and engage with the general workforce, Grant testified. Long has also conducted four agency-wide town hall meetings to find out what FEMA does well and what it can improve on.
Jacqueline Simon, director of public policy at the American Federation of Government Employees, highlighted another flaw in FEMA’s misconduct system during Thursday’s hearing.
In addition to a lack of documented misconduct policies, FEMA’s Stafford employees, a subset of temporary disaster recovery workers, have no appeals process for allegations filed against them. Simon said this leaves Stafford employees totally at the mercy of management and makes them susceptible to retaliation for blowing the whistle on misconduct issues they witness.
Simon advocated for bringing Stafford workers into AFGE, which covers FEMA’s permanent workforce. The union could then help fight potential corruption on their behalf.