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Help not wanted: Budget cuts push federal hiring to 10-year low

Jul. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
INDIA-US-POLITICS
A guard watches the US Embassy in New Delhi. The State Department is one of a small number of agencies that saw an increase in hiring in fiscal 2013. (FINDLAY KEMBER / AFP/Getty Images)

Years of budget cuts have pushed federal hiring to its lowest levels in almost 10 years, with nearly every agency seeing drastic drops in new employees.

The federal government hired 81,003 permanent, full-time employees in fiscal 2013, the lowest number of hires since fiscal 2004, when the federal government hired close to 79,000 employees, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

The federal government has also shrunk by nearly 70,000 employees over the same time period, as more federal employees quit or retire.

The drop in new hires has affected almost every career field. Investigators, engineers and scientists are seeing the biggest reductions in new hires while medical practitioners are the only growth area among federal employees.

The Department of Homeland Security has seen its new hires fall from more than 14,000 in fiscal 2009 to about 4,000 in fiscal 2013—a drop of 75 percent, according to OPM numbers.

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“Overall, government-wide hiring has slowed in recent years due to fiscal constraints, and overall DHS full time, permanent hiring is consistent with this trend,” DHS spokeswoman Nicole Stickel said.

Part of the decrease is also attributable to a decline in the agency attrition rate, according to Stickel, and the agency hires temporary employees to meet emergency needs such as disaster relief.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said the hiring reduction has contributed to a smaller federal workforce, and agencies need to figure out new ways to meet their missions.

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In the past, agencies have turned to automation to help fill in the gaps in manpower, he said. Agencies should work on reducing the time and manpower needed to perform essential tasks, Palguta advised. However, if agencies can’t eventually boost the number of federal employees, management will see increasing breakdowns in agency functions and possible scandals, he warned.

The Internal Revenue Service provides a recent example, Palguta said. Republican lawmakers have accused officials there of targeting conservative groups for closer scrutiny of their tax-exempt status. Meanwhile, the Veterans Affairs department’s inspector general has found that employees manipulated wait lists to boost performance measures.

“When you have a stagnant or decreasing workforce and increasing responsibilities you see breakdowns where agencies shoot themselves in the foot,” Palguta said.

He said agencies are also prioritizing which mission areas are most critical. While they cannot cancel or mission or program they can put it on “life support” while they shift resources to more mission critical areas.

The Interior Department is also hiring fewer employees, dropping by more than half since 2010, according to the agency.

The agency is just responding to fiscal constraints, and in addition to its permanent full-time hires the agency employs an extensive seasonal workforce to help complete its mission, according to spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw.

“The number and pace of hiring considers both the budget and workforce planning needs,” Kershaw said.

Nathan Christensen, Defense Department spokeswoman, said the drop in hiring was the result of budget cuts.

"Due to declining budgets, we have deliberately restricted hiring into our civilian workforce as needed, to achieve efficiencies while meeting mission requirements," he said.

Two agencies bucked the trend. The VA’s hiring increased 11 percent from fiscal 2009 to 2013, from 23,000 new hires to 25,566. The State Department saw hiring increase 57 percent, albeit on much smaller numbers—from 410 hires in 2009 to 643 in 2013.

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William Dougan, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said even as Congress repeatedly cuts budgets, agencies are still acting as if they can do everything they used to.

“While agency budgets shrink, employee responsibilities balloon. This increased workload results in longer hours, higher stress and eventually, demoralization within the workforce,” Dougan said.

He said the unrealistic expectations contribute to higher attrition rates because there are just not enough hours in the day to complete the work agencies face. Job satisfaction among employees also suffers.

He said the reduced hiring also ties into a lack of promotions that can drag down morale. As agencies leave higher level vacancies unfilled instead of promoting workers internally, qualified employees may leave federal service entirely.

“Not providing high-performing employees an opportunity for growth hampers the federal government’s ability to recruit and retain a strong federal workforce,” he said.

Jacque Simon, the policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, said the lack of hiring is pushing agencies to contract out more of its work, even when it might make more sense to hire a permanent employee.

But the growth in medical hiring is because of the increase in veterans who need care at the VA and within the Defense Department, she said.

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