The Department of Housing and Urban is losing mission-critical workers at an increasing rate despite scattered offerings of telework, pay bumps and student loan repayments as retention incentives, a watchdog report shows.

The department, which employs a total of nearly 8,000 employees, has had difficulty hiring economists, HR specialists, contract professionals, auditors and cybersecurity workers. While these are notoriously difficult positions to hire for government in general, comparable agencies’ turnover rates for such positions have improved as HUD’s worsened, according to its inspector general. Agencies similar in size, structure and budget served as benchmarks for comparison.

“HUD’s voluntary attrition rate for these occupations increased ... by 5.4%, while the average of the comparable agencies’ rate decreased by 2.4%,” according to the findings, which surveyed the results from fiscal 2019 to 2022.

Further, HUD employees in IT, contracting and auditing were also more likely than any other to leave in their first year.

The report reflects how the federal workforce has undergone a great deal of change since the pandemic. While the full effects of that public health crisis are still being unearthed, maximum telework, economic turmoil and budget uncertainty have forced agencies to compete with each other, and the outside world, for talent that is willing to bounce around for the best workplace environment.

Remote work policies in particular has proven to be a strong incentive, or deterrent, in the federal job market.

At HUD, federal employees have been able to telework up to four days per week, a fairly gratuitous policy compared to other agencies. The department has also offered fully remote work for specific occupations in IT and appraisals. Others in the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer and Field Policy and Management have not.

Last year, more than 80% of HUD employees had an approved telework agreement, according to the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoints survey.

However, pressure from Congress and the White House to get workers back to offices has led the department to call back managers, said Salvatore Viola, president of the American Federation Of Government Employees Council 222, in an interview. A similar mandate hasn’t yet been issued for the rest of the workforce, he said, but the feeling is that one seems imminent.

“As we get closer to the election, that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “More mandates will come in.”

A spokesperson for HUD said 90% of staff across the country have hybrid work schedules and are coming into offices. The department will continue to increase its in-person presence, the official said in an email.

“When they do try to reduce the amount of telework days, we’re seeing people just leaving and going to other jobs,” Viola said.

About a third of HUD employees said in the latest version of the employee survey they intended to leave the department in the next year. Of those, about 54% said telework options influenced that decision.

Pay flexibilities to stave attrition

HUD has also made use of retention bonuses and occupation-specific salary increases as a way of monetarily incentivizing employees to stay with the department.

However, retention pay can only be given to employees who are likely to leave government altogether. Those that “agency hop” aren’t usually considered eligible. HUD offices said sometimes that means they don’t have a workforce eligible for the bonus, even if employees end up leaving anyway to go to another agency.

For specific skills gaps or hard-to-recruit positions, HUD can offer a higher salary to aid recruitment and retention. For example, in 2022, appraisals were approved for a special rate. An increased rate has also been requested for IT professionals, but as of August, one had not been approved by the Office of Management and Budget.

Special rates can be tied to budget constraints on top of strict rules about how they’re capped and who they apply to.

Employees who work for Ginnie Mae, a departmental office that guarantees mortgage-backed securities, is also looking to roll out a “demo” of an alternative pay scale that will make salaries more competitive with other financial regulators.

And as for student loan repayment, the agency said it offered reimbursement in 2019, 2020 and 2022 and served hundreds of employees each year.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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