Federal agencies had to scramble in 2020 to provide dozens of new and desperately needed services when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the Office of Personnel Management offered new hiring options as a means for agencies to get people on the ground to provide those services.

But despite these efforts to bring in more employees the federal government did not see a marked uptick in hiring in 2020.

In March 2021, the federal government had approximately 34,577 more employees than it did at the same time in 2020, according to OPM data. However, in March 2020, the federal workforce had increased by 40,550 employees over the previous year, meaning that the rate of hiring actually slowed down.

Federal employment peaked in September of 2020, with 2,181,106 employees across all federal agencies.

In fact, new hires for federal positions over the last five years peaked in 2019, with 280,381 new feds joining government service.

Instead of hiring, the federal roster increased from 2019 to 2020 due in large part to the fact that fewer federal employees left government service — either to retire or seek new employment — than they had in previous years, with nearly 20,000 fewer employees leaving government in 2020 than in 2019.

Such a drop in departures makes sense in light of both the increased need for government services and a more tumultuous job market in the private sector.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, OPM authorized Schedule A authority for agencies to hire temporary employees for a one-to-two-year time period in order to better respond to the needs of the American people.

Schedule A is a sweeping excepted service hiring authority that agencies were already utilizing to onboard employees with disabilities, certain scientific personnel, certain legal positions and many others prior to the pandemic.

In 2020, federal agencies brought on 23,647 employees under Schedule A, a 5,000-employee increase over 2019 hirings.

And while agencies on the medical front lines like the Department of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services increased their Schedule A hiring in 2020 — by 718 and 157 more personnel, respectively — those agencies onboarded a far larger proportion of personnel outside of such hiring authorities.

Notably, the Census Bureau and Small Business Administration each hired more than 6,000 employees under Schedule A.

For the Census Bureau, such hiring is largely part of the norm, as the agency usually hires short-term enumerators in large quantities to conduct the decennial census.

The SBA, on the other hand, went from hiring just 513 employees under Schedule A in 2019 to 6,424 in 2020.

Such positions were mostly in legal and accounting fields so that the agency could respond to the millions of requests for COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans, COVID-19 emergency advance grants for small businesses and several other congressionally mandated assistance programs.

From March 2020 to 2021, SBA more than doubled its staffing levels, going from 4,385 employees to 9,348.

And while many of the temporary hires brought on to address the COVID-19 pandemic will have their appointments end in the next couple of years, the federal workforce isn’t likely to shrink in that time, as President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 plans for an additional 50,000 full-time-equivalent feds to join the government.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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