Firefighters are among the temporary workers the law could benefit.

Firefighters are among the temporary workers the law could benefit. Kari Greer/U.S. Forest Service file photo

Congress Intervenes to Fix Hiring Regs Written by ‘Entrenched Bureaucrats’ at OPM

Lawmakers, union say OPM violated the intent of a 2015 hiring reform law.

A “no-brainer” hiring reform bill President Obama signed into law last year after receiving unanimous support in Congress was intended to be a non-controversial and painless way to ease hiring at certain agencies. Only one thing stood in its way: the Office of Personnel Management.

The bill was created to give land management employees on temporary appointments the ability to apply for permanent positions while taking advantage of their service time. The measure was created to fix a perceived inequity that led to seasonal workers -- such as federal firefighters -- returning to their same jobs year after year at the same pay level without the opportunities for career advancement enjoyed by the rest of the federal workforce.

The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act was written to give temporary employees access to apply for jobs previously available only as promotions for permanent workers at the hiring agency. Much to the chagrin of the lawmakers who wrote the bill and the union that backed it, OPM took a narrow interpretation in issuing regulations on the law. The human resources agency said the bill would only give temporary workers a leg up in applying to positions at their current agency, rather than across federal government.

The National Federation of Federal Employees has for months lobbied OPM and Congress to widen that rule, saying it undermined the true intent of the original legislation.

“In direct opposition to congressional intent, entrenched bureaucrats at OPM are keeping in place the very barriers to meaningful career advancement the [land management law] was enacted to break down,” NFFE President William Dougan said in a statement, after writing a letter to Obama asking him to intervene.

Dougan said in that letter that OPM had demonstrated a “flagrant disregard for the will of Congress” and was using logic typically reserved for Dr. Seuss books.

On Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a correction to its original bill to clarify that seasonal land management employees should be able to apply to internal job listings across government.

“Unfortunately, OPM issued regulations with a narrow reading going against clear congressional intent,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., author of both the original measure and its fix. That intent, he said “has been thwarted.”

Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz echoed Connolly’s comments.

“This is, I think, a misread by OPM,” Chaffetz said. “These are people fighting fires. They're hired as seasonal workers, my goodness, and they can't even apply for a job? It really is quite amazing and ridiculous.”

For now, the law affects about 10,000 employees at the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Indian Affairs Bureau and Reclamation Bureau. The impact of the ultimate congressional and regulatory interpretation of the law could be far more reaching.

Original leaders on the bill have said that land management agencies should serve as a test case, and eventually temporary employees across government should be entitled to easier career advancement. Already, Republican lawmakers have mimicked the legislation to apply it to the Defense Department.

Temporary seasonal employees can work at most six months per year. They do not receive the same benefits as their permanent counterparts. Permanent seasonal employees -- who also only work part of the year but are placed on furlough status rather than being let go completely when their work is not required -- receive all the same (albeit pro-rated) benefits as regular, full-time workers.

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