Employees say they are working more overtime on account of vacancies than they are allowed to get paid for.
A group of Democratic lawmakers is seeking a legal opinion to establish whether the National Weather Service has circumvented congressional authority by refusing to spend funds appropriated for hiring.
The Weather Service maintains more than 400 vacancies, according to an agency spokeswoman, despite a mandate lawmakers included in appropriations law requiring the agency to fill those positions. The Trump administration has in each of its budgets proposed slashing about 350 Weather Service jobs, leading lawmakers to question whether the agency is purposely refusing to fill vacancies as an end run around congressional intent.
In a letter to Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office, Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Don Beyer, D-Va., Conor Lamb, D-Pa., and Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., asked GAO to launch an official inquiry into whether the agency has violated the 1974 Impoundment Control Act. The law spells out the steps the White House must take when it aims to not spend money Congress has appropriated through the rescission process.
In a report accompanying spending bills in both fiscal 2018 and 2019, Congress told the National Weather Service it was “very concerned” about ongoing vacancies and mandated the agency reverse course.
“Given the importance of the NWS mission to protect the lives and property of our nation’s citizens, extended vacancies are unacceptable—particularly when the [Appropriations] Committee has provided more than adequate resources and direction to fill vacancies expeditiously for the past several fiscal years,” lawmakers wrote. They directed the agency to fill all vacancies “as expeditiously as possible.”
In their letter, the House Democrats cited previous GAO rulings that found agencies cannot put off appropriated hiring without congressional approval. The auditors have recently ruled the Trump administration cannot withhold funds to fulfill the president’s budgetary proposal. The rescission law empowers the comptroller general to sue agencies to require them to spend the money Congress has provided, though agencies generally act on their own to do so after GAO finds a violation.
The lawmakers suggested the agency’s failure to hire has put the public at risk and hurt workforce morale. The Weather Service’s own post-storm assessments have highlighted the need for more staffing. In the review of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas in 2017, for example, the Weather Service said handling similar storms going forward would require “a significant staffing investment,” employees who themselves were impacted by the storm “amplif[ied understaffing” and the National Hurricane Center “experienced fatigue” due to “limited staffing.”
The workforce issues predate the Trump administration. A 2017 GAO report found vacancies at the agency grew from 5% in 2010 to 11% in 2016, including positions that went unfilled for years. The understaffing led to burnout among the agency’s workforce, GAO said, and had a significant negative impact on morale.
The situation has yet to improve, according to Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Organization.
“The morale is just horrible,” Sobien said. “We’ve been going for years now with these vacancies.” He added NWS is a relatively small agency, so a few hundred openings have a significant impact. The agency's vacancy rate is currently at 9%.
Sobien said employees in several units are working so much overtime to make up for unfilled positions that they are exceeding their statutory biweekly pay cap, meaning they are performing overtime and not getting paid for it.
NWS has told Congress it is making progress on vacancies, noting earlier this year it had 250 “hiring actions” underway. The agency later told Sobien’s organization during arbitration that nearly all of those actions were either promotions or reassignments, meaning they would not result in any net reduction in the vacancy rate. The House lawmakers suggested NWS was intentionally dragging its feet.
“As the NWS’ most recent budget request demonstrates, it appears that the NWS has affirmatively decided not to backfill its vacancies for policy reasons, despite clear congressional disapproval and direction to utilize the funding it has been granted to fully staff the agency,” they wrote.
Susan Buchanan, an NWS spokeswoman, said the agency is "absolutely not" intentionally declining to hire more employees as a means to fulfill its budget proposal to cut staffing levels. Buchanan said in fiscal 2018 and early fiscal 2019 the agency reversed its seven-year trend of losing more employees from attrition than it could hire, but much of those gains were "offset due to the government shutdown" and a recent spike in retirements. NWS has implemented a new hiring process, more frequent vacancy announcements and other efforts to "overcome this challenge," Buchanan said.
"We are working with the Department of Commerce and NOAA to hire staff as quickly as possible within appropriated funding levels," she said. "We follow all Congressional direction, appropriations laws, and applicable internal controls in our hiring and budget execution."
Sobien said NWS has been making that claim for years, but has yet to make any significant progress.
A GAO spokesman said the lawmakers' inquiry is going through its normal review process, but no decisions have been made yet.