Employee morale declining since hiring freeze, NTEU members say

Federal employees are worried.

Or at least, that’s what some are telling the National Treasury Employees Union, which took the pulse of 877 federal employees a week ago. Nearly 81 percent said morale at their agencies is declining or getting worse.

About 58 percent of federal employees say their workloads have increased since President Donald Trump authorized a temporary hiring freeze for some agencies, according to the union’s recent survey.

Online Chat: Beth Killoran, deputy assistant secretary for Information Technology and chief information officer at HHS, on March 28.

Roughly 78 percent of federal employees said they and their colleagues are concerned about their job security.

Roughly 60 percent of NTEU respondents said they’re worried about possible cuts to retirement programs, while 71 percent said they’re concerned about cuts to federal pay and benefits.

This year, the union, which represents about 150,000 federal employees in 31 agencies, is trying to make a business case to Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration: a well-resourced, happy, engaged federal workforce leads to better outcomes for American taxpayers.

Republican lawmakers haven’t taken to that message quickly in the past, NTEU National President Tony Reardon said.

“I’m not certain that we have always been so effective in bringing them around, because there is an ideological bent that they have,” he said during a conversation with reporters at NTEU’s 34th legislative conference in Washington March 1.

As the ranking member of the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) acknowledged he has a similar job to do.

“We’re trying to convey a complicated, layered, textured message of why you matter at the worst time ever — when the environment is toxic, when there’s blood in the water, when the President introduces a budget that eviscerates everything but a few pet areas,” he said. “It gets tough. You need a messenger.”

About about 65 percent also said their agencies don’t have the resources now to fulfill their missions. Reardon said this feedback from his members has been especially concerning, given the Trump administration’s recently announced plans to cut civilian agency budgets by $54 billion in fiscal 2018.

Reardon said he knew budget cuts to many of the agencies with NTEU representation were coming, but he was still surprised to hear just how severe some of those cuts could be on organizations like the IRS, Environmental Protection Agency and State Department.

The IRS has already experienced budget cuts in recent years. It’s lost about $1 billion in funding and 17,000 full time employees since 2010. NTEU represents roughly 75,000 employees at the IRS.

“When you know about the IRS budget and the impact it’s had, for example, since 2010, — the $1 billion cut in funding — and you know the impact it’s had on employees, you know the impact it’s had on the IRS’ ability to function, and then you hear about 2018, a 14 percent cut that’s going to result in about a $1 billion hit in one year? I guess I would have to say I was a little bit surprised about that,” Reardon said.

Securing fair pay, protecting retirement and health care benefits and achieving agency missions are among NTEU’s top priorities in 2017.

Defending merit system principles and rights is another.

“That is something that we think is a major problem and we will oppose mightily,” he said of the congressional push to alter due process rights for some federal employees.

There seems to be some momentum in Congress to change due process rights or alter the civil service system writ large. For example, House Veterans Affairs Committee leadership recently introduced a new version of accountability legislation for VA employees.

And the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said it planned to hold a series of hearings this year on federal employee discipline, performance management and hiring.

Reardon said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some sort of legislative change to the civil service wouldn’t earn his support. But he maintains the view that the General Schedule is working and has been proven to work in the past.

“I tend to shy away from no, no, never, it can’t happen,” he said. “I’m not going to go there. The current civil service system that exists is effective, if it is utilized properly. That does not mean that I’m not going to talk to people, that I’m not going to listen to what the ideas are. I’m not just going to disengage. That is not what NTEU’s all about and that’s not what I’m all about.”

The union has been working with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, on a bill to improve training opportunities for federal managers. NTEU said it sees training as one area that desperately needs greater attention and resources.

The IRS, for example, has seen an 85 percent cut to its training budget in recent years, Reardon said.