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.”