Federal workers scrambled on Tuesday to interpret how President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze of civilian employees might affect seasonal firefighters and other part-time employees.
Trump’s order, issued Monday, stated “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”
“The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” the order continued. “In addition, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”
National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Council President Melissa Baumann said the order left her in the dark about U.S. Forest Service staffing, especially with hiring fairs for permanent firefighting professionals starting next week.
“We all had a hard time just trying to get hold of the executive order itself yesterday,” Baumann said. “We’re waiting to see where the chips fall.”
Baumann said in 2015, the Forest Service hired about 11,000 seasonal workers. At least 6,200 of those were firefighters or had firefighting-related duties. But many were for positions such as logging sale analysts, trail maintenance workers, and forest rangers.
The Forest Service itself did not have much more to add by Tuesday afternoon.
“We are waiting for further clarification and direction from the Office of Personnel Management related to the hiring freeze,” said Jennifer Jones, fire and aviation management spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Washington Office. “We cannot speculate on the impact of the hiring freeze.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the sweeping language of the order left him confused about its interpretation.
“As to what qualifies as public safety, you’ve got me,” Ruch said. “Our weather forecasting capacity has declined, because of a substantial loss of National Weather Service personnel. They can’t remedy that unless weather forecasting is a public safety matter.”
Ruch said the duration of the freeze was also up for debate. The order requires the Office of Management and Budget to produce a long-term plan to reduce federal workforce through attrition within 90 days. But that plan must be done in consultation with the director of the Office of Personnel Management, which doesn’t have a nominee for the position named yet. The hiring freeze will not expire until the OMP attrition plan is implemented.
That will run afoul of the Forest Service’s annual hiring cycle, according to NFFE Fire Chairman Joe Duran. Arizona national forest officials have scheduled a job fair for apprentice firefighters on Jan. 30, with a larger regional hiring combine planned for mid-February.
“By the time you get your undersecretary and all those people in place, you’re 60 to 90 days behind the scene and off schedule,” Duran said. “I’m pretty sure they’ll give a (public safety) exemption, but you still won’t be able to staff up in a timely manner. In California, firefighting is already year-round. And in most other places, it’s getting year-round, too.”
Trump’s order also said “contracting outside the government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” That raised concerns within the Forest Service, where many tasks such as drafting environmental impact statements are handled case-by-case through private contracts.
The Forest Service has struggled to accomplish regular tasks in recent years because of increased demands of firefighting nationwide. In what’s known as “fire-borrowing,” the agency has had to spend more than 50 percent of its total budget on firefighting activity and pay for it by raiding budgets for other services. It has reduced its non-fire personnel by 39 percent between 1998 and 2015, from 18,000 workers to less than 11,000, according to FEDManager.com, a Washington, D.C., news service for federal executives. Firefighting personnel have more than doubled in the same period.
While Montana’s congressional delegation has proposed legislative fixes to let the Forest Service pay fire costs similar to the way other national disasters are funded, those measures have not passed Congress.
Trump’s order advised department leaders to make “reallocations to meet the highest priority needs and to ensure that essential services are not interrupted and national security is not affected.” That raised questions of whether seasonal firefighters would be considered an increase in federal workforce that would have to be offset by reductions in other areas.
Since 1994, Forest Service national employment has declined from 45,408 workers to 29,588 in 2016, according to the National Finance Center. At the National Park Service, workforce has fallen from 16,715 in 2001 to 12,440 in 2015, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis states that federal employees made up 1.93 percent of the total U.S. non-farm civilian work force, down from a post-World War II high of 5.2 percent in 1951.
“Is all the attrition going to come from the rest of the workforce?” asked NFFE regional vice president Lisa Wolfe. “We’ve got seasonal people doing things like wildlife, hydrology, recreation, timber, archaeology – pretty much anything, we have a temporary workforce there somewhere.”
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