"Hiring staff now would increase the likelihood of furloughs next year," says Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, above. (File photo / Getty Images)
President Obama proposed a $1 billion boost in the Social Security Administration's budget for next year. Last week, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue conceded that plan is worthless.
"Hiring staff now would increase the likelihood of furloughs next year," Astrue said.
Fears of flat budgets or even cuts in 2012 and 2013 are prompting managers across government to freeze or curtail hiring, leaving many thousands of vacancies open indefinitely. This comes even as federal employees are retiring at a clip of 90,000 a year.
And even though agencies got a little breathing room once Congress finally passed a 2011 spending bill last month, experts agree that won't last for long. At best, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, future federal hiring will occur in "fits and starts."
"The cap's been taken off, and some steam has been released" with the approval of the 2011 spending bill, Palguta said. "But in the long range, I think the cap's going to come back on. Now that we've got clarity on the budget for the next few months, we'll do some hiring. But on the other hand, you can't have a smooth recruitment effort to bring people in gradually and absorb them over time, because we don't know what will happen in 2012."
The result is that agencies like SSA, the Justice Department, the Smithsonian Institution, the State Department and others are gun-shy to hire anytime soon.
The Social Security Administration, with a workforce of about 69,000, expects to lose about 2,500 operations employees to attrition this year and a similar number next year, said Joseph Dirago, a New York field office manager who also heads the National Council of Social Security Management Associations.
"Obviously, these kinds of losses are going to have a definite impact on public service," Dirago said. "We're already seeing some diminishing service with increasing waiting times and workload backlogs."
Like other agencies, SSA spent more then six months in budget limbo awaiting congressional action on a 2011 spending bill. And once Congress passed the bill last month, more than halfway into the fiscal year, the agency found it had even less money to spend than the previous year, Astrue wrote, because rent and other fixed costs continue to increase.
"Regrettably, even our strongest advocates in Congress are warning us that the best we should expect next year — just five months away — is funding at our current level," Astrue told employees in a memo last week. He said he was extending a partial hiring freeze that has been in effect for almost a year.
SSA isn't alone, said Thad Juszczak, a former federal budget officer now with the consulting firm Grant Thornton.
"I think everybody should be concerned," Juszczak said. "Nobody should be out hiring."
Within the next month, OMB is expected to issue guidance to agencies on what assumptions and scenarios to plan for in their 2013 budget requests.
Given that Congress never acted on Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request and that deep cuts are being discussed for 2012, the key question is what base number agencies should use, said Paul Posner, a former Government Accountability Office official who teaches at George Mason University.
"From an agency standpoint, it's a terribly difficult situation, because you have to start from something," Posner said. "Given what's happened this past year, it's hard to imagine what 2012 levels will be.
Officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department are on hold, said Ken Leventhal, a division director in HUD's budget office.
"It's very unclear where we'll come out," he said.
The Justice Department's hiring freeze — which was imposed earlier this year and even prevents the department from hiring to replace most attrition — remains in effect, and spokeswoman Jessica Smith said Justice isn't sure when it will be lifted. Justice earlier this year said the freeze was necessary to avoid a sudden, dire budget crunch that would force employee furloughs. Smith said those concerns remain.
"Given the reductions in the recent FY 2011 full year [continuing resolution], and the funding uncertainty facing us in FY 2012, the Attorney General has directed that the January 21st restraints continue," Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee Lofthus said in an April 19 memo to the rest of the department.
Smith said Deputy Attorney General James Cole has made a few exceptions to fill jobs in U.S. Attorneys offices or for crucial law enforcement positions. But much of the department must make do with vacancies when valued employees leave.
The State Department has 9 percent of its civil service positions vacant, and anticipated budget cuts could hamstring its efforts to fill those positions. Depending on the severity of future budgets, the vacancy rate could worsen, State said in an email.
State is prioritizing any hiring it does for its most critical positions, such as those needed to support operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and other priority initiatives.
Critical choices at the Smithsonian
The Smithsonian's National Zoo is another agency facing a dire staffing situation, and will lay off seven support employees June 4 because of budget shortages. Budget increases in recent years haven't been enough to keep up with rising animal feed prices and the cost-of-living raise Congress approved for federal employees each year until 2011, said Carol Fiertz, the zoo's associate director of finance and administration.
And with the zoo struggling just to maintain its current staffing levels, it's not even considering adding new positions. Even replacing departed employees is questionable, Fiertz said.
Employees who directly care for the zoo's animals, such as veterinarians, nutritional staffers and keepers, will be replaced as soon as possible when they leave, Fiertz said.
But tour guides, administrative staffers, employees who put together signs, and other support employees may not be replaced when they leave.
"One thing we won't do is put the safety and welfare of staff or the collection [of animals] at risk," Fiertz said. But when it comes to other support staffers, "every position is being scrutinized as it becomes available. It's hard to make these decisions."
More secure is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Between 2004 and 2009, the commission's budget soared 60 percent, thanks to a surge in interest in building new nuclear power plants, Chief Financial Officer Jim Dyer said in an interview. During the same time, its workforce jumped by a third, to 4,000 employees, and contract spending spiked 80 percent.
Now at about $1 billion, the NRC's budget has actually shrunk slightly in recent years, and is likely to see little change next year.
"My sense is the flat budget is appropriate," Dyer said.
firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Reader Question">Sean Reilly contributed to this report.