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Federal Hiring Freeze To Hit Rural and Minority Communities the Hardest

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

President Donald Trump issued a memorandum last month freezing the hiring of civilian employees throughout the federal government with the exception of military personnel and “to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” The order specifies that contracting “to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” In addition, it directs the Office of Management and Budget to come up with a plan to reduce the size of the federal government through attrition. Under this order, except in “limited circumstances,” any federal agency jobs vacant as of noon on January 22, 2017 cannot be filled.

The hiring freeze is item No. 2 on Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter,” highlighted as a measure “to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC.” But economic analysts say it will do nothing to boost the overall job market. And a look at those who will be hardest hit by the freeze shows that it will disproportionately impact rural communities and communities of color.

According to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), more than 85 percent of federal workers live and work outside of Washington, D.C. Among the states that rely most heavily on federal jobs are Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Montana, Alabama and New Mexico. These jobs are lifelines in places where there are few other options.

How will blocking the hiring of a school bus driver for the Tsiya Day School in Zia Pueblo, New Mexico, address corruption? A special education teacher at the Ojibwa Indian School in Belcourt, North Dakota? A Department of Interior park guide in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, or a Veterans Administration food service worker in Chillicothe, Ohio? All are current job openings the president’s action will leave unfilled.

The freeze, said public services workers union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) president Lee Saunders in a statement, “will make federal agencies less effective, hurting people and communities that depend on efficient public services. It may mean unsafe workplaces aren’t inspected, lower quality health care for our veterans, and longer wait times at Social Security Administration offices.”

“This really affects small communities,” says Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He points out the order will also affect a lot of veterans, who have priority for hiring in federal agencies.

“This is a short sighted and bad policy,” says Stettner. “It’s a giant axe that comes down and ends up hurting the kinds of communities Donald Trump said he was going to support.”

Ballooning federal employment a myth
Press secretary Sean Spicer has said the hiring freeze “counters [the] dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.” But according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the federal government workforce made up of civilians has remained more or less consistent for the past 50 years. While there have been ups and downs in federal hiring, if postal service workers are included and U.S. population growth is factored in, “the federal government has barely grown in recent years,” explains PolitiFact. Currently, less than 2 percent of American workers are federal employees.

Loss of access to jobs under a federal hiring freeze will hit black Americans, and black women, particularly hard. Office of Personnel Management statistics show that blacks make up a higher proportion of the federal workforce than the private sector, and more than half of these workers are women.

Also among the hardest hit are communities that rely on federal land management agencies—among them the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service. Communities that rely on federal prison and veterans center employment will also suffer potential job losses.

On February 1, Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs wrote to Trump urging him to exclude from the freeze federal agencies providing essential services to Native communities, especially the Indian Health Service (IHS), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).

“Even before the hiring freeze was announced, Federal agencies that provide these services were struggling to recruit and retain a qualified workforce,” wrote the senators, led by committee vice-chairman Tom Udall.

As the letter explained, IHS medical facilities, which provide primary and preventative health care to about 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, predominantly in rural areas, regularly face 20 percent or greater vacancy rates for doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. On February 17, the Department of Health and Human Services responded saying that IHS clinical staff would be exempt from the federal hiring freeze. The committee Democrats called this “a step in the right direction.”

Other community programs may still be subject to the freeze. On January 31, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidelines about exemptions but they have not yet been clarified. “We have no idea how broadly these agencies will be able to construe that guidance. It does not appear to answer the question of whether positions like teachers or other education personnel could receive an exemption,” Udall’s communications director, Jennifer Talhelm, explained in an email. “We remain hopeful that President Trump will reconsider the hiring freeze as it applies to all Indian programs,” the Democrats said in a statement.

At the same time, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) executive director Jeff Ruch, staff shortages are also a serious problem throughout the agencies responsible for public lands and wildlife management. In a PEER survey, 84 percent of national wildlife refuge managers said they don’t have enough staff to meet their “core conservation mission.”

“This freeze means that the thin green line protecting America’s natural resources will get thinner and, in some places, it will snap,” Ruch in a statement. “How this will affect fire crews, especially on wild land fires, is of particular concern,” he said in a phone interview. “As a management tool, it seems kind of crude and misguided.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) called the hiring freeze “a critical first step toward reining in Washington bureaucracy.” But even Chambers of Commerce in Texarkana, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina have expressed concern about what the freeze will mean for local employment.

Freeze will hamper economic recovery
A consistent theme in the 2016 election was the inequity in economic recovery since the Great Recession. The federal hiring freeze won’t help, says Stettner.

“Government employment hasn’t recovered as much as private—at all levels, local, state and federal … You have a president saying he wants to create 25 million jobs in five years but if you don’t want to include government employment, they’re just wrong on what it takes to grow an economy,” Stettner says of the Trump administration.

At the same time, Trump’s base of support was those who identified themselves as struggling to find good, living- and family-wage jobs. Federal government jobs, with benefits that include health insurance, retirement savings programs, paid holidays and sick leave, typically fit that description. With the hiring freeze, “government workers are being pitted against other workers,” says Stettner, a tactic organized labor advocates say has been used to undermine unions.

“One way to see this is a kind of distribution of wealth issue,” says Loyola University College of Law professor Robert Verchick.

If the federal government steps back further as an employer, communities that need these benefits most are likely to suffer. Government jobs, says Stettner, “are a strong set of public goods.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

New House rules allow Congress to slash the pay of individual federal workers

Friday, January 6th, 2017

The Republican House majority proposed and passed a rules package on the eve of the GOP seizing control of the House, Senate, and the White House, and it contains more than a few surprises.

Republicans received widespread constituent outrage in response to a proposal to gut an independent congressional ethics office and bring it under the thumb of lawmakers, and they rolled it back in response. But the rules package contained other significant changes , including rules expanding Congress’ power to haul private citizens to Capitol Hill for testimony, and the revival of an obscure rule that would allow Congress to individually target and slash the pay of government workers and programs.

The Holman rule, named after the congressman who first proposed it in 1876, was nixed by Congress in 1983. The rule, now reinstated for 2017, gives any lawmaker the power to offer amendments to appropriations bills that could, legislatively, fire any federal employee or cut their pay down to $1 dollar, if the lawmaker so chooses.

Congress has always had the “power of the purse”: through the appropriations process, the legislative body can broadly cut the budget of any government agency. This Holman rule, however, allows lawmakers to exercise this power with laser focus and to target individual civil servants. A majority of the House and Senate would have to approve any such amendment.

Terminations or pay cuts passed through the Holman rule would override any civil service or other employment protections. Union leaders are particularly concerned with how the law might impact employees covered under collective bargaining.

“The jobs and paychecks of career federal workers should not be subject to the whims of elected politicians,” said the National President of American Federation of Government Employees, J. David Cox Sr., in a statement. “The Holman Rule will not only harm our hardworking federal workforce, but jeopardize the critical governmental services upon which the American people rely.”

The rule would allow Congress to target civil servants for political or ideological reasons. Lawmakers could, for example, specifically target civil servants who work on or speak publicly about climate change, or they could vote to drastically reduce the salary of IRS executives responsible for scrutinizing conservative groups.

The rule is particularly concerning coming only a few weeks after the Trump transition team asked the Energy Department for a list of scientists who have worked on climate change, and for the State Department to submit details of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality.

The Trump transition team said that the survey sent to the Energy Department, which asked for a list of individual researchers by name, was “not authorized.” In a statement about the request to the State Department, the transition team issued a statement saying that the inquiry was to help President-elect Trump “ensure the rights of women across the world are valued and protected.”

Democrats, who voted against the rule package as a block just as Republicans voted for it, railed against the change.

“This rules package provides [the Congressional Majority] with the surgical tools necessary to reach into the inner workings of the federal government and cut away each part and employee that runs afoul of their ideological agenda,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), whose northern Virginia district is heavily populated with government workers.

“It undermines civil service protections; it goes back to the nineteenth century,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a floor speech on Tuesday. “Republicans have consistently made our hardworking federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself, and this rule change will enable them to make short-sighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service.”

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) offered the bill. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said he considered it unlikely, but not impossible, that lawmakers might use the power of the bill to cut huge swaths of government workers.

“I can’t tell you it won’t happen,” he told the Post. “The power is there. But isn’t that appropriate? Who runs this country, the people of the United States or the people on the people’s payroll?”

Even if lawmaker don’t use the new provision, its revival sends a clear message to federal employees that their livelihood is now subject to the whims of elected officials. That alone could have a chilling effect on the civil service and on work that runs counter to the Republican ideological agenda.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on January 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laurel Raymond is a General Reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her: lraymond@thinkprogress.org

Contract for Disaster: How Privatization Is Killing the Public Sector

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

mtm0ndg4mjmzmzyxodm5mzc4Privatization is bad news for federal, state and local government workers, and the communities where they live. That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by In the Public Interest, a research group focused on the effects of privatization.

The study, “How Privatization Increases Inequality,” explores the role privatization plays in the American economy—compiling data on the estimated $1.5 trillion of state and local contracts doled out each year.

“A lot of decisions are small,” says Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, but “if you add all that up, it’s very significant.”

Many government workers in the United States enjoy a robust structure of pay and benefits, including pensions, health care and paid time off. Workers operate in a structured environment that acts, as the report says, as a ladder of opportunity. A clearly outlined framework of positions and pay grades, backed by enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, makes government jobs particularly friendly to women and people of color—20 percent of public sector jobs are held by Black workers, while nearly 60 percent of public sector jobs are held by women.

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

For decades, work in the public sector has been a gateway to a middle-class life. But that’s changing.

Cohen notes that the Right managed to make privatization an ideological project. This shift has generated huge profits for corporations and harmed public sector workers and their unions.

“They want to contract out not because it makes sense, but because that’s their jobs. They’re right-wingers,” he says.

Privatized workers have lower rates of unionization, are paid less than their publicly-employed counterparts, don’t have access to benefits and experience high turnover, the report shows. Sometimes they work side-by-side with government employees, as at the University of California system, something that Cohen says is deliberate.

“Part of the strategy of management is to contract out part of the work to keep the pressure on the non-contract part of the work,” he says.

That strategy leaves workers shortchanged—literally. In 2013, the National Employment Law Project found that one in five federal contractors it interviewed was using Medicaid for health care, while 14 percent needed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP). Reliance on federal benefits shifts costs from employers to taxpayers.

Contract employees are caught in a poverty trap that hurts not just them, but their communities. Workers who aren’t making money aren’t spending it, dragging down local businesses and creating a ripple effect in regional economies.

The report argues that poor recordkeeping and limited transparency make it extremely difficult to gauge the effects of contracting, and that the public needs to have access to such information. Legislators, advocates, unions and workers should be invested in how, when, where and why contract labor is used.

Is it improving services while keeping standards high for workers? Or is it being used as an ostensible cost-cutting measure, harming workers and shifting expenses to taxpayers and their communities?

We’re seeing a new era of work in America, and the move to contractors over directly-employed government workers is highlighting that shift as well as its consequences. For government workers, privatization is an economic shell game, and they are losing.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on September 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

S.E. Smith is an essayist, journalist and activist is on social issues who has written for The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, AlterNet, Jezebel, Salon, the Sundance Channel blog, Longshot Magazine, Global Comment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Reproductive Health Reality Check. Follow @sesmithwrites.

Public Employees Are Leading the Way on Making Government Work Better

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallDespite being one of the most frequently cited boogeymen of right-wing extremists and the target of bipartisan policies that cut their pay and benefits, government employees are very frequently part of the solution and are leading the way in innovating on new and better ways to work with management and improve services and costs. A new report released by the Jobs With Justice Education Fund, Improving Government Through Labor-Management Collaboration and Employee Ingenuity, written by Erin Johansson, research director at Jobs With Justice, provides plenty of examples of this very phenomenon.

The report focuses on examples of government employees at the federal, state and local level who have found innovative ways to find efficiencies, improve or maintain customer service in the face of fiscal woes, reduce health care costs, train a quality workforce and proactively address major policy shifts. Several of the examples detailed in the report include:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) working together to successfully roll out new technology at 17 of 20 air traffic control centers, saving millions of dollars in software development costs.
  • The Naval Sea Systems Command and AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department implementing a system for improving productivity that proved successful enough at reducing inefficiencies that it was expanded to all four shipyards.
  • Charlotte County Public Schools partnering with its unions to tackle rising health care costs by creating a self-funded health plan with a free clinic for employees and their families.
  • The state of Michigan and the UAW employing “lean techniques” to reduce lobby wait times for social services clients from three hours to 30 minutes.
  • The Ohio State University partnering with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to encourage employee participation in a wellness program, which led to a quadrupling of union member participation.

The report’s authors conclude:

“All of these cases give us hope that we are entering a new era in which labor-management relations lead the way to both improved public services and improved work-life experiences for public servants. The status quo is no longer sustainable for workers, employers and taxpayers. We urge all government officials and union leaders to read these cases and catch the wave.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on January 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

House Cuts TSA Funding, Eliminates Collective Bargaining Amid Union Election

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

It was just a few months ago when Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers were granted the right to form a union following months of contentious debates in Congress.

The move paved the way for the largest federal labor election in U.S. history; balloting began in early March. But two amendments recently passed by the House of Representatives could undermine the efforts of more than 45,000 airports workers to organize as union run-off elections are set to conclude in the weeks ahead.

Last Thursday, the Republican-led House approved legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining and cut the TSA’s budget, which the unions and the federal agency say would cost thousands of jobs. The amendments were part of the 2012 homeland security budget bill for fiscal year 2012.

Rep. Todd Rokita’s (R-Ind.) amendment, which passed 218–205, prevents the use of federal funds for collective bargaining by the TSA workers, who provide security for the nations’s airports. Another measure cuts more than $270 million from the agency and was led by Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who is also House Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The timing of the bill coincided with a report released by Rep. Mica on Friday, which found that private screeners operate more efficiently and could save the government at least $1 billion over five years. A TSA spokesperson told the Washington Post that the 10 percent workforce reduction would cutabout 5,000 jobs.

In a statement, Rep. Rokita echoed similar sentiments, but went further by saying collective bargaining “would hamper the critical nature of TSA agents’ national security responsibilities.” He added that collective bargaining would make it difficult for people to settle disputes with the security workers.

The financial undercutting and rollback of union rights comes as the workers are currently voting to decide whether the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) or the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) will represent them.

In April, neither union received a majority vote, leading to a run-off election that will continue until June 21; ballot counting will occur two days later. The landmark voting came just two months after TSA administrator John Pistole allowed limited collectively bargaining rights for the first time in the agency’s ten-year history.

In spite of the election, both unions have separately called on their supporters to mobilize against the House bills. “AFGE will not allow these corporate, right-wing politicians to make being in a union un-American,” saidnational union president John Gage in a statement. “This amendment is nothing but a repeat of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s unfounded attack on the right of all Americans to have a voice at work and the right to bargain collectively.”

The NTEU also appealed to some Senate members in hopes that the bill will not pass under the Democratic majority. President Colleen M. Kelley also called Rep. Mica’s study “partisan” and refuted the report. She writes:

In the wake of 9/11, Congress and the President determined, with wide public support, that airport security functions are better performed by federal employees. Not only does NTEU question the validity of the study, I believe the American traveling public would be loathe to return to the days [of] less than a decade ago, when low-paid, ill-trained employees of private contractors handled air passenger screening duties.

An updated study by the Government Accountability Office found that using private screeners would cost 3 percent more after an analysis of revised data from the TSA. A 2007 GAO study found that the costs were upwards of 17 percent. In January, Pistole suspended private screening programs because he did not find any “substantial advantages.”

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on June 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer and reporter for Kyodo News. He regularly contributes to the In These Times blog covering labor and workplace issues. He lives in New York City.

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