The furloughs, pay freezes, possible retirement benefit cuts and other dire news for federal employees threaten to shatter the government’s recruitment and retention efforts, Obama administration officials and union leaders said Wednesday.
“I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back, but I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff,” Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said at a Wednesday meeting of senior administration and labor leaders.
“We cannot recruit and retain a qualified workforce by freezing their pay forever. We cannot do it by changing their retirement plan on an annual basis. We cannot do it by denigrating public service,” Berry said.
Berry pointed out that the Government Accountability Office “dragged me over the coals” in a Feb. 14 report for not being able to recruit employees to fill vital cybersecurity skills gaps, and the next day, the House passed a bill freezing pay for a third straight year.
“Only in this town can … no one see a connection between those two points,” said Berry, who is co-chair of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, which meets bimonthly.
Frederick Vollrath, assistant secretary of Defense for readiness and force management, said federal staffing problems will start to become obvious within the next year or two, unless agencies and labor leaders start to think strategically about the issue.
“There’s a train wreck coming if we don’t address it,” Vollrath said. “I don’t have a clue how I can, with a straight face, talk somebody into coming into federal service.”
Union officials agreed that plummeting morale is starting to cause cracks in the federal workforce. Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said budget cuts are stifling agencies’ efforts to find ways to improve how they do business.
“I’m hearing from my members [that] all of the ideas, all the time and energy we put forward on cost-efficiency, productivity and effectiveness was a waste,” Junemann said. “When the rubber hits the road, and they really had trouble finding money, the first thing we’re going to do is grind and cut the workforce. And that’s hurting morale, it really is. My members … are beginning to feel pretty damn unappreciated.”
Berry said there is no question that attacks on the federal workforce have damaged morale and the government’s attractiveness as an employer.
“I’ve seen it this year just in terms of the number of retirements,” Berry said. “They are continuing to climb far beyond what we originally projected.”
Berry said the council needs to take another look at what drives people to consider federal service. The council agreed to consider that issue at its next meeting May 15, as well as unions’ long-standing complaints about the lack of pre-decisional involvement in local partnership councils.