Hiring Freeze Chills Long-Term Fed Temps

In the latest of many recent strikes at federal employees, House Republicans are seeking to reduce the government workforce by 10 percent, according to a budget proposal released this week.

The plan is to achieve those cuts by allowing vacated positions to go unfilled, and it’s unclear how such a policy -- similar to other recent proposals -- would affect term-limited employees. But based on the account of one Government Executive reader, the budget climate already could be affecting the government’s long-term, temporary employees.

Melissa Brassbridge, a program administrator at a Citrus Health Response Program Office in Vero Beach, Fla., says as many as 86 of her term-employee colleagues cannot reapply for their jobs due to a hiring freeze at the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service.

Many of them have clocked more than a dozen years as citrus disease and pest inspectors, reapplying for additional terms of employment on a noncompetitive basis every four years. Brassbridge’s colleagues were first hired on as part of an emergency citrus disease eradication program. That program, she says, is now a permanently funded “citrus greening program.” But even as the program became permanent, their positions in it remained temporary.

“Because of the OPM guidelines, I and others in my program believed that once our program became a line-item budget item, our positions would at least be advertised as permanent, instead of term,” Brassbridge explains. “It has kind of been a carrot dangled in front of us.”

It’s not only the hiring freeze that’s preventing the inspectors -- most of whom are paid at GS 5, 6 or 7 levels -- from reapplying. Agencies can override a hiring freeze with hiring justification waivers, but Brassbridge says USDA has told her colleagues the waivers take too long and get bogged down in bureaucracy.

According to Paul C. Light, a professor of public policy at New York University, temporary work historically has been a convenient way for government to “keep the head count low,” particularly in a climate of high political and budgetary pressures.

“Anything that either hides head count or reduces it is going to be highly popular,” Light told tells Government Executive. “You don’t want to be a president on the campaign trail accused of increasing the size [of the government] based on head count.”

It’s likely the White House and the Office of Personnel Management would not want to be caught “back-door hiding” the workforce’s true size, Light says. Finding loopholes in a hiring freeze to re-up Brassbridge’s colleagues could appear to lack transparency.

“I would argue that these jobs can be found outside government,” he adds. “Many will be outsourced through service contracts.”

The citrus inspectors in Florida are not alone in their gripes. In 2004, term-limited employees in the Justice Department’s antitrust division protested being cut loose without opportunities to reapply or gain full-time employment based on performance.

The 31 clerical workers claimed they took temporary positions at Justice with the understanding they could turn their term positions into permanent ones if they met performance expectations.

“Now the antitrust division wishes to end these term appointments with no consideration being given to job performance,” several Maryland lawmakers wrote in a letter to Justice on the employees’ behalf. “It is our understanding that these secretaries will be replaced by new appointees who will be given lower salaries, but whose actual duties will be the same as those who are being replaced.”

Brassbridge adds that years on the job -- in her colleagues’ case, years of walking up to 10 acres a day in citrus groves, inspecting trees and talking with packing house owners -- lead to a kind of rapport with the community that would be difficult to replicate quickly.

“There’s a trust level there,” she says. “These guys know the routes, they know the people. “