The State Worker

Donald Trump’s hiring freeze brings concern, creativity to federal offices

The ice is melting on the Trump administration’s hiring freeze.

Uncle Sam posted about 650 new help-wanted ads for work in California in the weeks since President Donald Trump announced a federal hiring freeze, offering opportunities from the Border Patrol to the National Park Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the mix of jobs looks different from the vacancies the government advertised before Trump’s freeze took hold.

Today, the positions advertised at usajobs.gov tend to center on security, seasonal work or critical health care assignments.

Positions for white-collar office jobs that were advertised on the website in January are gone. So are postings for some significantly understaffed offices, such as the Army Corps of Engineers in Sacramento.

Around the state, branches of the federal government are making due with the temporary hiring ban while bracing for lasting cuts if Trump can make good on his pledge to shrink domestic programs.

“There’s a lot of anxiety in the office,” said Thelma Estrada, an Environmental Protection Agency attorney who is the president of an American Federation of Government Employees local that represents federal attorneys in San Francisco. “It’s not just for personal reasons, but looking at the kind of work we do and being afraid because regulations are being turned back. The impact of all of these things will outlast the Trump administration.”

Trump budget outlines that have become public suggest her agency might lose as much as a fifth of its workforce, meaning many employees at the EPA are more concerned about what comes after the freeze than dealing with the temporary ban.

Elsewhere, federal agencies around California are finding ways to continue hiring or to fill gaps with outside help. Here’s a look at ways they’ve found to navigate the president’s hiring ban.

Highlight trouble

The first federal agency to gain a broad exemption from the hiring ban was the Department of Veterans Affairs. That agency has struggled with high demand for care and employee turnover during an era in which the country simultaneously expanded benefits for Vietnam veterans while welcoming home a generation of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The VA obtained an exemption allowing it to hire most medical staff on Jan. 27, four days after Trump signed the order instituting the freeze. As a result, VA hospitals can make job offers to doctors, social workers and psychologists. In Sacramento, the VA has jobs for a supervisory psychologist and a number of medical technicians.

“We will continue to hire within the parameters set forth by the VA Central Office and support the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin as he continues to move forward with position exemptions that he deems necessary for our veterans’ health and safety,” said a statement from the regional VA office that oversees hospitals in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Reno and Fresno.

The VA cannot hire beyond its front-line medical staff. Its 360,000 employees make it the country’s largest health care system. It has about 48,200 vacancies – 36,416 of which are exempt from the hiring ban.

The recent scandal that caused Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in 2014 centered on long delays for care at hospitals and employees manipulating records to hide unfavorable data on how long patients waited for appointments.

But the other branch of the VA, the part that processes benefit claims, has slogged through its own backlog. For the first time in three years, the number of veterans waiting more than four months for decisions on their initial benefit claims began increasing in December. As of this week, about 98,000 veterans have delayed initial claims.

The Veterans Benefits Administration has 488 vacancies and no exemptions from the hiring ban.

Negotiate

The Trump administration softened the hiring freeze just a week after it took effect. On Jan. 31, the Office of Management and Budget published an exemption list for national security, seasonal work and other jobs that keep the government running.

But departments have spent weeks figuring out how to unlock the exemptions and start hiring.

The National Park Service, for instance, didn’t receive clear direction that it could hire for its busy summer season until Feb. 17. That news was a relief to the agency, and many of the positions advertised on jobs boards are for those assignments.

The military, too, had broad exemptions for jobs caring for troops and families at what are often isolated bases around the world. A Feb. 1 memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said military installations could hire for jobs that included child care, cybersecurity and law enforcement.

But, since then, two Army posts and a Marine base have suspended child care programs because they were not permitted to hire new staff.

Fort Irwin, the massive post outside Barstow where the Army practices some its its largest combat drills, is hiring for its child care programs. It gained permission to make the hires last week.

Col. Scott Taylor, its garrison commander, said the post has more than 140 vacancies. He said it has not yet “experienced any significant impacts to the quality of life of our soldiers, families and civilians.”

Get help from friends

Tourist season arrives early at Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert, where travelers hope to catch spring flowers while missing summer’s scorching heat.

This winter, the park could not gain exemptions fast enough to build up its staff at its visitor center in time for the spring rush.

That’s when the Joshua Tree National Park Association stepped in to lend a hand. The nonprofit organization expanded its staff at the park’s visitor centers, giving part-time workers full-time shifts and offering a few more part-time jobs.

Meg Foley, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the extra workers will help answer tourist questions in the park’s busiest months. It’s coming off a record year in 2016, when 2.5 million people visited the park.

“Our visitation at Joshua Tree National Park has just skyrocketed in the last three years,” she said. “They’ve been struggling under the best of circumstances to keep up with staffing to handle this giant influx, so there definitely was anxiety with the prospect of a hiring freeze.”

Be patient

Federal agencies are free to ask for specific exemptions for jobs that their leaders consider to be critical. The Army Corps of Engineers office in San Francisco, for instance, has three jobs it wants to fill and is making a case for them, a spokesman said.

Military hospitals, like VA health care centers, are run with largely civilian staffs. They have not yet received permission to hire even though some of them have large numbers of vacancies.

“We are going through the request process” to ask for exemptions, said Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the headquarters that oversees Army health care.

Deal with it

Trump’s budget outline suggests some domestic programs are in line for several years of austerity. He highlighted the hiring freeze during his speech to Congress last week, and his supporters are pleased to see him signaling his intent to shrink at least part of the government bureaucracy.

“The president is serious about cutting federal spending, and anybody who has ever been in government knows that there are very few places where you cannot get serious savings,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party.

One local office with a high vacancy rate is the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Sacramento. It has 200 vacancies from its 1,100 positions, spokesman John Prettyman said.

Those vacancies predated the Trump administration. The district oversees watersheds from western Colorado to Bakersfield.

“The bottom line is as of right now we’re able to get all of our critical missions done,” he said.

Jon Jarvis, the recently retired National Park Service superintendent, said his former agency can weather the short-term hiring ban. He, too, worries about the next budget.

“The question is whether this goes on into the next year,” he said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton

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