Daniel Canepa, right, a Department of the Army civilian employee, teaches the proper use of the Improvised Explosive Device Effects Simulator training system. Employees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, military service headquarters and combatant commands could be targets of reductions-in-force. (Luis Viegas/Army)
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Severe budget cuts could force agencies to resort to the first large-scale layoffs since the 1990s. And that has many experts wondering if federal human resources staffs have the expertise to manage a major reduction-in-force (RIF).
“Running a RIF is a nightmare,” said Jeff Neal, a former federal chief human capital officer at ICF International, a consulting firm. “I will guarantee you that there are some senior HR people in government who — if they found out they had to do a really large RIF — would be incredibly worried about it.”
The Office of Personnel Management’s RIF guidance runs some 90 pages. Both employees whose jobs are abolished and those lower down the scale who are then pushed out of their positions under a process known as “bump and retreat” can appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is currently swamped by more than 32,000 cases stemming from this year’s sequester-related furloughs.
Add a lot of RIF challenges to the mix, and it would be a challenge for the board to manage, said John Palguta, a former MSPB official who is vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.
The pressure for permanent downsizing is mounting as agencies brace for a second year of sequester-related spending cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The first round of sequester cuts, which took effect in March, forced furloughs of between a few days to almost two weeks for hundreds of thousands of employees. The second round is expected to hit in January.
The likely result at the Defense Department: “You’re going to see some reductions-in-force actions over coming months,” Comptroller Robert Hale said late last month.
Hale would not say how many jobs could be affected, adding more recently that the department will strive to keep layoffs to “an absolute minimum.”
Pentagon officials declined to discuss planning and preparation efforts or to say when the ax could fall.
One target of any RIFs could be employees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, military service headquarters and combatant commands. All are in line for 20 percent cuts by 2019, according to a strategic review launched earlier this year by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“As nothing has been decided at this time, I can’t speculate on when a potential announcement for possible RIFs would be made,” Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a DoD spokesman, said in an email.
The Defense Department is so far the only major agency to publicly say that it may resort to RIFs.
But Debra Roth, a Washington-based federal employment attorney at Shaw, Bransford and Roth, said that “as DoD goes, the other agencies will follow.”
Under a provision of the Budget Control Act aimed at reducing future deficits by about $1 trillion, automatic sequesters could occur every year through 2021 unless Congress and the White House agree on a long-term deficit-cutting deal.
While a recently formed House-Senate committee is examining options for 2014, few observers give it much chance of averting the looming sequester. The Defense Department, whose civilian workforce grew by about 80,000 in the last decade, is slated for a $20 billion cut on top of a $37 billion reduction this year.
Agencies last imposed large-scale RIFs in the 1990s as part of the military drawdown that followed the end of the Cold War and the Clinton administration’s “Reinventing Government” initiative.
Almost a half-milion jobs were cut during the decade, according to OPM statistics. Although agencies relied heavily on early retirement and buyout incentives to encourage employees to leave, they also turned to RIFs to abolish tens of thousands of positions.
RIF procedures have changed little. Human resources managers first must create a “competitive area” to serve as the pool of jobs that could be eliminated.
In deciding whether an affected worker is retained or let go, human resources administrators must consider four factors: the employee’s type of appointment; what level of veterans’ preference, if any, they have; their years of service; and their performance ratings.
Employees whose jobs are abolished can —if qualified — bump colleagues in lower-graded positions, magnifying the RIF’s impact.
“The bottom line is that it tends to be a last hired, first fired situation,” Palguta said. Particularly for organizations that haven’t gone through a RIF recently, he said, “It could be a difficult time.”