Acting Director Margaret Weichert sought to reassure employees that their jobs were safe despite a recent dust-up with lawmakers.
Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Margaret Weichert told agency employees Thursday that, despite recent news suggesting around 150 workers would be furloughed or laid off later this year if Congress does not approve the controversial merger with the General Services Administration, their jobs will be safe come October.
Last week, reporting emerged that Weichert told lawmakers that unless they committed to approving the plan to move most of OPM’s functions to GSA by June 30, the agency would begin preparations to furlough roughly 150 employees, as the result of a $23 million budget gap caused by the transfer of background investigations to the Defense Department. An appropriations bill approved by the House on Wednesday would block both the OPM-GSA merger and any efforts to furlough workers at OPM in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
On Thursday morning, Weichert hosted an agency-wide town hall meeting to discuss the recent developments and reassure employees that leadership is doing everything it can to avoid furloughs or layoffs. Government Executive reviewed a video of the meeting.
“We literally truly do not anticipate that we will have [reductions in force],” Weichert said. “What we have looked at, and [Deputy Director] Mike Rigas has worked with a team of folks in finance and a broader set of folks, looking at all of the scenarios if we don’t have the funding we need on Oct. 1. And RIFs are not even in the first five categories of things we’re looking at. I do anticipate that we will have funding if the government has funding . . . and if there’s a continuing resolution we will have sufficient funds.”
OPM Chief Financial Officer Dennis Coleman said that the agency expects that, even if Congress funds the government by continuing resolution this fall, appropriators will include language to increase OPM’s funding to cover the shortfall created by the transfer of the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Pentagon. And the agency is exploring other ways to at least delay the need for furloughs.
“There are creative ways we can address the issue as it pertains to Oct. 1,” Coleman said. “There are other streams of money that we’re looking at using to offset the situation in October . . . I don’t want anyone to think that we’re sitting idly by. There are very detailed discussions that we’re having . . . We think we have substantial creative ways to address the issue before we impact personnel.”
Despite those assurances, employees at the meeting expressed frustration with the rollout and subsequent discussions of the proposed OPM-GSA merger. One employee told Weichert that the news over the last few weeks has sent her mixed messages about her value to the agency.
“On the receiving end of this as an employee, what I’m hearing you say is I need you, I need you, I need you to stay,” the employee said. “OK, so you need me and you need to use me up until you furlough me. I mean no disrespect, but honestly, I’ve really tried since you’ve been speaking to us, I really did give you the benefit of the doubt of the gate, and I think you’re a sharp lady. I trusted at the beginning some of the things that you were saying. But every day it’s something different, and I’m very confused as to who is saying what to whom and who is giving the deadlines. I’m very perplexed right now with this.”
Weichert apologized for giving employees that impression, noting she was reluctant to speak about furloughs and the prospect of buyouts and early retirement for workers because they may not be needed.
“If, and again I really hope it doesn’t go there, if the time comes, we will take care of people,” she said. “I’ve been weighing the notion of signaling around VERA and VSIP because I worried it would make you more nervous than you already are. If I made a misjudgment about that, I’ll own that. The issue about the complexity of the messaging is real, and I wish it were more straightforward.”
Another employee said she was struggling with the ambiguity regarding discussion of the Trump administration’s request for $50 million to implement the OPM-GSA merger, versus the additional $43.4 million provided for the agency in the House’s fiscal 2020 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill.
“The transition [to GSA] is your goal, and you believe that OPM is better served if its mission is to be combined, or merged, with GSA, correct?” she said. “But there are obviously, from the hearing, from OPM employees, I think there’s a missing piece that there’s no alternatives to this transition. What are the opportunities to present OPM staying as OPM? You mentioned the $43 million with restrictions [in the appropriations bill], but the restriction is you can’t use them for transition work, but you can use them to fund OPM, and if you fund OPM then OPM can continue to exist. I think that’s where the tension is.”
Weichert said that the problem with the House’s appropriations package is that the language blocking the agency from merging with GSA is overly broad, blocking key agreements OPM has with GSA that would help improve the agency, regardless of where it is ultimately housed.
“One of the challenges in doing all of the data analysis for an option of what it would take to fix OPM as it is is . . . to actually fully size the capital investment required to get the IT infrastructure we have to where it needs to support the mission requires a current state architecture,” Weichert said. “We’re trying to get that through an inter-agency agreement with GSA, but the rider of the appropriations bill would prevent us from doing that. That isn’t a transition activity, just one that’s needed but we haven’t been able to do.”
Weichert said the agency hopes to convince lawmakers to at least narrow the scope of that language so that it can continue agreements with GSA that aren’t related to the merger proposal.