Montana Braces for Impacts of Federal Hiring Freeze

Forest Service, National Park Service halting job hires until Trump administration carves out 'long-term' workforce plan

By Dillon Tabish
The Great Northern Type Two Initial Attack unit walks in line as the Reynolds Creek Fire burns near the Rising Sun General Store in the St. Mary region of Glacier National Park in 2015. Beacon File Photo

Federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, are in a holding pattern for filling vacant and seasonal positions following a broad hiring freeze ordered earlier this week by the Trump administration, creating uncertainty in Montana, where federal employment plays a significant role in the economic landscape.

In an effort to “counter the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years,” President Donald Trump instituted an immediate hiring freeze on Jan. 23, halting federal agencies from filling vacancies or hiring civilian employees for seasonal jobs. The president’s memorandum exempted “military personnel” and other positions necessary for public safety and national security. On Jan. 27, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it was also exempt from the freeze.

It is unclear how long the hiring freeze could extend, though Trump in his memo directed the Office of Management and Budget to craft a long-term plan within 90 days to reduce the size of the federal government’s workforce through attrition. The hiring freeze would expire upon implementation of the plan, the memo stated.

The move drew cheers and jeers along party lines as Republicans applauded the first across-the-board hiring freeze since President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, while Democrats criticized the directive as irresponsible.

“We know public union bosses are going to do everything they can to fight this, but Montanans know that we don’t need a larger federal government with more bureaucracy,” Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines stated. “We don’t need more federal employees with less accountability. The federal government must become more efficient and accountable to taxpayers. Everything should be on the table.”

The number of federal employees in the U.S. — and in Montana — has in fact remained relatively unchanged in recent years, according to government data, both in terms of actual size and in comparison to population growth.

In 2014, the latest year with data published by the Office of Personnel Management, there were 2.66 million federal civilian employees in the U.S. and 4.18 million total federal employees. In 2009, there were 2.77 million federal civilian employees and 4.43 million total federal employees. In 2000, there were 2.63 million federal civilian employees and 4.12 million total employees.

According to the 2017 fiscal budget, “the U.S. population has increased by 67 percent since the 1960s and the private sector workforce has increased by 136 percent while the size of the Federal workforce has rose about 10 percent.”

In Montana, there were 13,024 federal employees on average in 2015, earning total wages worth $852 million, according to state labor data. In 2008, there were an average of 13,604 federal employees earning a total wage of $781.9 million.

Flathead County is home to a large segment of federal employees working in the Forest Service, National Park Service and other agencies. In 2015, there were 579 federal employees in Flathead County in the first quarter and 902 in the third quarter, meaning the busy summer months.

In Lincoln County, there were 437 federal employees in the second quarter of 2016, the most recent time period when data is available. Those employees were earning an average weekly wage of $1,171. In the third quarter of 2015, there were 526 federal employees in Lincoln County.

Concerns have been raised about the hiring freeze stalling seasonal positions, such as firefighters, from being filled in the coming months in preparation for summer. Firefighters could end up being exempt from the freeze, but the OPM had not issued a clear directive in the week following the announcement.

Flathead National Forest, in 2015, had 49 seasonal firefighters, including 18 members of the Flathead Hotshots, and 104 non-firefighter positions at the various local ranger districts. These positions included trail crewmembers, recreation and timber assistants, and other field staff.

Teresa Wenum, spokesperson with the Flathead National Forest, said the local agency is uncertain how the hiring freeze will impact these seasonal hires.

“We have not received any guidance on the details,” she said. “We don’t have an answer on the impacts because we don’t know. We are still waiting on direction and guidance.”

The Forest Service has already announced some seasonal hires that are on hold, along with vacancies that will not be filled until a directive is given. Typically, most summer seasonal positions are filled starting in April, which is when the OPM could release its response to Trump’s memo.

Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, criticized the hiring freeze as detrimental to states like Montana where veterans who receive care and fire resources are in need of constant preparation. He applauded the announcement that the VA would be exempt from the freeze but remains concerned of the other potential impacts.

“This order puts Montana’s treasured public lands and forested communities at risk. Folks need to be prepared for fire season and top-down blanket proposals from Washington, D.C. like this undermine our ability to respond to these growing wildfires and our capability to have an efficient and effective workforce,” he stated.

The National Park Service is consulting with the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on their guidance for implementing the hiring freeze. As with previous hiring freezes, the National Park Service will work with the administration to ensure that it meet the needs of park visitors across the system.

Coalter Baker of the OMB said his office was still waiting for the president’s final guidelines on the hiring freeze.

As of this week, the National Park Service has 1,731 vacant positions. Additionally, in the coming months, the NPS would typically hire roughly 8,000 seasonal employees to support the peak summer visitation season.

Glacier National Park hired approximately 350 seasonal employees in fiscal year 2016, with the lion’s share of them hired between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Currently, the park is advertising for two temporary seasonal positions — a carpenter and an emergency dispatcher.

“We are still coordinating with the Office of Management and Budget and are trying to determine how this hiring freeze affects seasonal employment throughout the National Park Service and at Glacier National Park,” Lauren Alley, spokesperson for Glacier National Park, said.

According to Trump’s memorandum, the head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet public safety responsibilities. The NPS will work with the Department of the Interior to ensure that personnel responsible for the safety and protection of visitors and park resources are exempt from this hiring freeze.

Alley said maintaining a full staff of firefighters and law enforcement officers at parks is critical to visitor safety. Therefore, per the provisions in the president’s memorandum, Glacier Park will work with the Department of the Interior to ensure that personnel responsible for the safety and protection of visitors and park resources are exempt from this hiring freeze.

Seasonal employees play a vital role for the National Park Service. They help parks throughout the system provide quality and safe experiences for visitors throughout peak visitation periods. The NPS typically hires around 10,000 seasonal and other temporary employees throughout the year, with more than 8,000 onboard during the peak summer visitation period.

“Glacier Park needs to have the staff that it needs and to take care of maintenance and to make sure visitors’ experience in the park is not harmed,” Tester told the Beacon. “That’s a critical driver of the economy in Northwest Montana, and it should be hiring people right now and ramping up for the summer season that will be here pretty damn quick.”

Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, said the hiring freeze is “clumsy mismanagement at best and, depending how long this goes on, woefully irresponsible at worst.”

“The president is issuing broad orders without thinking out the impacts and ramifications of them rather than proceeding cautiously,” Weiss said. “This is peak hiring season for federal seasonal employees and the fact that these orders are coming down without an Interior Secretary or a Deputy Secretary in place is extremely troubling.”

In 1982, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report on federal hiring freezes implemented under Presidents Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and determined the efforts were not effective in collaring federal spending.

“The principal stated objective of Government-wide hiring freezes is to reduce the size and cost of the Federal work force. However, employment reductions during the last four freezes were small and (the Office of Management and Budget) did not determine whether the freezes resulted in a net savings,” the Office said in its 1982 report. “GAO found cases in some agencies where the hiring freezes increased some operational costs and decreased efficiency and effectiveness.”

The report, which analyzed four across-the-board freezes between 1977 and 1982, found that the freezes did not substantially reduce employment and led some agencies to hire contractors and pay more overtime to existing employees to compensate for the unfilled vacancies. In general, the freezes “also increased the cost of government operations by causing inefficient staff utilization and clerical shortages, and by damaging recruiting efforts,” and “disrupted some agency programs and operations.”

“Because across-the-board freezes applied to agencies regardless of their mission and workload (the Government Accountability Office) found that the freezes caused decreased oversight of federal programs by making it more difficult for the Inspector General offices to do their job and caused lost revenues and uncollected debts.”

The GAO report concluded, “Government-wide hiring freezes, regardless of how well they are managed, are not an effective means of controlling Federal employment.”

It continued, “We believe employment reductions should be targeted where they can best be absorbed. Improved work force planning and use of the budget as a control on employment, rather than arbitrary across-the-board hiring freezes, is a more effective way to insure that the level of personnel resources is consistent with program requirements.”

Tristan Scott contributed reporting to this story.

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