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After years of strong growth, fed employment drops slightly

Jun. 1, 2012 - 03:33PM   |  

The government has started to trim its workforce, ending several years of explosive and controversial growth that came at a time when private companies and state and local governments slashed jobs.

Federal employment has fallen for seven months in a row, the longest sustained drop in more than a decade. The decline is tiny: Just 11,600 fewer workers in April compared with a year earlier, excluding temporary Census workers, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a fraction of the 2.2 million federal workforce.

Nevertheless, the reversal marks the end of a period of enormous employment growth that spanned the end of George W. Bush’s presidency and the start of President Obama’s term.

Federal employment grew 13 percent — 250,000 jobs — from the recession’s start in December 2007 to a peak last September. During that time, private employment fell 5 percent and state and local governments cut staffs by 2 percent.

Political and financial pressures have stopped federal hiring growth, says John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, which promotes a high-quality federal workforce. “Budget challenges are becoming real,” he says. He predicts the federal workforce will shrink through 2013 and maybe longer.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has proposed cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent. Obama’s budget calls for a small increase in federal workers.

The four-year boom in federal hiring added to nearly every government department, rather than a few high-priority missions. The recent hiring plateau is a similar government-wide phenomenon, with a few key exceptions.

Among the hardest-hit: The Internal Revenue Service cut employment 6 percent last year to 90,904. The IRS attributes the decline to a flat budget and a hiring freeze.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also shed workers last year. However, the shrinking agencies, including the IRS, still have more employees than before the hiring boom.

The number of government lawyers held steady at 35,600 last year, after adding nearly 6,000 during the hiring boom. The number of prison guards, park rangers and librarians fell slightly. The number of doctors, dentists and nurses rose at a slower pace than in past years.

Federal employment trims are done without layoffs. When workers quit or retire, the government hires fewer replacements.

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