Federal agencies rush to fill job openings to beat Trump's hiring freeze

The Washington Post

Several federal agencies are accelerating hiring in the final days of President Barack Obama's administration to ensure that as many new employees as possible are in place before President-elect Donald Trump imposes a promised hiring freeze.

Leaders at these agencies are filling open positions with transfers and outside hires, and making internal promotions before Trump takes office Jan. 20, according to internal documents and interviews.

The hiring could increase tensions between the Trump transition team and the Obama administration - a relationship that has grown worse in recent days due to disagreements over how the United States should handle its relationship with Israel and the issuance of new sanctions against Russia over its role in hacking incidents tied to the election.

Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said in an interview late Friday that an agreement was struck in November that no new hires would be made after Dec. 1.

"After the election, the current administration notified us there would be a hiring freeze as of Dec. 1," he said. "The understanding was that there would be a full accounting of anyone put on the payroll after then."

Spicer declined to say whether he believes the administration has broken that agreement because the transition team has yet to be given any details about new hires and whether job offers had been extended after Dec 1.

Spicer said the offer to institute the freeze was made by Andrew Mayock, deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Asked Friday evening about any agreement on halting hiring, the White House declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the OMB.

The internal pressure to hire is so intense in some corners of the government that at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is bringing on hundreds of employees, human-resources officials were ordered to cancel their year-end holiday vacations to process paperwork and make offers to new hires.

An internal agency update there, issued on Nov. 17, instructed officials that "all involved should be ready for an 'all hands on deck' approach to implement the '45-day Hiring Plan' (Plan) to address a potential hiring freeze."

The agencies rushing to bring on new employees include not just Fish and Wildlife but the Transportation Security Administration, the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and parts of the Agriculture and Labor departments.

Administration officials are not creating new positions to bolster their ranks, according to several interviewed, and they are complying with existing federal rules in ways such as providing preferences to veterans.

But the hiring highlights the anxiety that many federal employees, managers and high-ranking political appointees feel as they prepare to hand off their agencies to a president who has called many of their missions into question - and pledged to halt future hiring. By filling positions left open by end-of-the-year retirements and attrition, officials hope to secure the cushion they want when the new administration takes office.

"If an agency is already significantly understaffed and a hiring freeze is applied, it could exacerbate the staffing problem and make doing the business of the agency difficult or impossible," said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents about 110,000 civil servants.

Trump has promised that in his first 100 days in office he will freeze hiring by not replacing employees who leave, regardless of their workload or workforce needs. The military and employees serving in public health and safety roles would be exempt, according to the president-elect's Contract with the American Voter. The president-elect described the freeze as part of a broader effort to "cleanup the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC."

The president can freeze hiring without congressional approval, by executive order.

A spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, which sets hiring policy for the government, said agencies make their own decisions on when to hire and how many jobs to fill, provided that they have enough money in their budget. Since the election, OPM spokesman Samuel Schumach said, no agency has been given new authority to make hires.

"Federal agencies have the authority to hire at will if it is necessary to carry out their mission and if their budget allows for onboarding personnel," he said.

USAJobs - the largest federal job board - posted 8,410 more open positions in November and December than during the same period last year, according to the OPM. That represents an increase of more than 16 percent compared with 2015.

From positions as high as senior executives down to entry-level biologists, nervous agencies are advertising jobs for periods of as little as five to six days so that they can bring employees aboard by mid-January. The span of six months to a year that it usually takes to hire candidates into full-time positions has been compressed since the election, often to two or three weeks.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said his agency is filling "existing, vacant positions" that have been approved and funded, and his approach was not directly related to the possible halt of new hires. But given the fact that there were hundreds of vacancies, he said, "I'm going to do everything I can to hire that person before that hiring freeze comes into effect."

NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, is racing to hire dozens of employees to fill vacancies, particularly at the National Weather Service, whose forecast offices are open around the clock and have been hit by a wave of retirements, said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

"There is definitely concern about a freeze," the official said. "If you're down one person in some of the forecast offices, it's much harder to carry out the mission."

After the election, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told leaders of the agency's nine departments to pay attention to filling open positions even as they scramble to finalize key regulations and other policy priorities, according to multiple individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

"The Department of the Interior has maintained regular hiring procedures in line with past practices," said spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw. "This includes regularly reviewing and onboarding qualified candidates to help fulfill our mission throughout the department."

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said his agency lost numerous positions to retirements this year, particularly after the agency's centennial celebration. He is trying to fill 10 percent of the slots within his overall staff, which numbers more than 300, by Inauguration Day.

"We've been very concerned about getting key positions hired in the parks across the service," Wenk said. "We're just trying to be as prepared as we can" for a hiring moratorium.

The approach to bringing more employees on board has varied, depending on the department or individual agency.

The Agriculture Department did an internal review a few months ago to determine what openings were available, according to an individual briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters and now is "rapidly" working to fill them.

A USDA spokeswoman declined to comment.

The TSA has filled a few dozen senior executive positions in recent weeks through promotions, according to internal agency announcements obtained by The Washington Post.

"It's extremely rare to have this many high-level promotions so quickly," said Andrew Rhoades, an assistant director in the agency's Office of Security Operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. "They're front-loading them. We're putting major personnel and structural changes in place before Trump takes office."

The OMB has told outgoing Obama officials to have new hires in place by the final pay period before Inauguration Day, according to multiple administration officials.

Such a move would make it harder for the next administration to rescind employment offers if it makes a freeze retroactive to Election Day, which is what President Ronald Reagan did after taking office in 1981. Federal employee unions challenged the move but Judge Charles Richey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Reagan's favor, saying that an accepted job offer was not a binding contract.

Not all agencies are accelerating their hiring pace. Some, such as the Internal Revenue Service, say that they have no money to hire new employees. Others, with intelligence missions, say that it is unrealistic for them to expedite the process, given how long it takes to complete background checks for security clearances.

But within agencies that are hoping to fill vacancies quickly, according to documents and interviews, officials are using an approach known as "direct hire" or "noncompetitive authority," which allows them to waive some standard competitive-hiring procedures.

"It's the single fastest way to get people on board," said Jeffrey Neal, a former personnel chief for the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president for ICF International.

"You can snap a finger and say, 'You're hired.' "

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