Army says it’s now fast-tracking requests to bypass governmentwide hiring freeze

The Army says it has established a new, streamlined process to approve exemptions from President Donald Trump’s governmentwide hiring freeze, and has now approved about 20,000 new civilian hires, up from just 5,500 waivers the service had issued as of a week ago.

The new procedures include a single, centralized email inbox to collect all requests from commanders who want exceptions from the freeze so that they can hire or reallocate their civilian personnel. Once those requests are received, most of them are now being moved through the approval process within 24-48 hours, said Diane Randon, the senior civil servant who’s currently performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs.

The presidential memorandum that established the freeze and separate DoD guidance that followed a week later created 16 separate categories of work that could be exempted from the hiring stoppage, but they weren’t automatic. Each new hire by a military service required the explicit sign-off of that service’s secretary, and senior officials were told to grant exemptions sparingly.

The hiring freeze began on Jan. 23 without a clear process for commanders to request exceptions or for the military services to grant them, causing uncertainty and delays throughout the force. In one extreme example, at least two Army posts — Fort Knox and Garrison Wiesbaden — went a full month without filling any positions for childcare providers, even though DoD’s Feb. 1 guidance explicitly mentioned those jobs as among those that could be exempted.

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“The department is trying to move swiftly — I know it doesn’t feel like it when I say Pentagon and ‘swift’ in the same sentence — but we tried to move as quickly as we could to provide relief,” Randon said Monday at a conference hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army in Huntsville, Alabama. “The acting secretary absolutely, positively did not want this to impact readiness. And we could get exemptions through if we tied them to readiness, but it took some storming and norming to put a process together.”

Although the hiring freeze, from day one, was meant to shield positions important to national security or public safety, it led to widespread problems simply because of the lag time between the start of the freeze and the Pentagon’s creation of new procedures to review and approve exemptions.

At Wiesbaden, for example, the part-day “Strong Beginnings” program for pre-kindergarten children was shut down on March 1. It won’t reopen until April 1, because hiring and transfers of childcare staff were stopped for a full month.

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“The unintended consequence of trying to start the engine of exemptions coming through was that the pause created a bow wave of hiring. Nobody was doing any [hiring] while we were kind of resetting, and we had to encourage commands to send us their exemption requests,” Randon said. “It created churn, some of it got a lot of media attention, but I think we’re starting to overcome all of that as we start to articulate exactly what happened.”

News of some other freeze exemptions began to trickle in from other corners of the Defense Department this week. The DoD Education Activity (DoDEA), which runs 168 schools on military bases around the world, resumed hiring on Monday. Stars and Stripes reported the exemption applies to all school-level educators, including positions like nurses and psychologists. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for details about the exemption or the size of its current hiring backlog.

Under Trump’s January order, the blanket hiring freeze will technically expire on April 22. But federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget first have to prepare and submit a comprehensive plan to continue to reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition.

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“As part of that plan, we’d like to believe that we can demonstrate and show that civilians are part of the total force, and that it’s necessary to have that enabling workforce to provide military readiness,” Randon said.

Indeed, given the Trump administration’s budget priorities, the Army and the other military services may be able to make a stronger case to at least maintain the size of their civilian workforces, compared to non-Defense agencies.

On the campaign trail, Trump proposed to grow the active-duty uniformed force to 550,000 soldiers, 74,000 more than currently planned. That larger force will need civilian support ranging from family services to contracting officers and depot maintenance staff to keep it ready.

Seven weeks of frozen civilian hiring has already begun to take a toll on Army readiness, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the deputy chief of staff in charge of operations and planning.

“From my foxhole, all of our going-to-war capabilities, from force protection to running training ranges, has been impacted,” he told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “It’s required more borrowed military manpower to compensate for civilians, and those are the soldiers that should be going through training. It’s everything from gates on installations to digital multipurpose range complexes. That’s been the backlash of the hiring freeze from an operational perspective.”

Within the Army’s maintenance depots, DoD’s Feb. 1 guidance let hiring officials get over some early hurdles that initially would have forced the layoffs of hundreds of temporary and term employees.

But Lt. Gen.  Aundre Piggee, the deputy chief of staff for logistics, said it’s clear that government-operated depots will have a difficult time meeting their demands if restrictions on civilian hiring remain in place for a long period of time.

“If we had to surge for a contingency operation, it would definitely have an operational impact,” he said. “We could not bring on a second shift because we cannot hire that second shift. Our only option would be to work significant overtime, which would have a safety impact.”