SES hiring freeze, other workforce items you may have missed this month

With the election and upcoming presidential transition, feds have had a busy month of November.

That hasn’t stopped the Office of Personnel Management, which released a temporary moratorium on Senior Executive Service hiring during the transition, a new final rule and several new reports.

Here are three things you may have missed in the November frenzy, which could impact you and your colleagues in the federal workforce.

A temporary SES hiring freeze

On Dec. 7, 2016, agencies will begin a governmentwide hiring moratorium on all new SES Qualifications Review Board (QRB) cases. The freeze begins when an agency leader resigns or announces his or her departure.

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Since President Barack Obama asked to receive all letters of resignation from non-termed political appointees by Dec. 7, the freeze essentially begins on that date.

“This is done to ensure the incoming head of the agency will have the full opportunity to exercise his or her prerogative to make or approve executive resources decisions that will impact the agency’s performance during his or her tenure,” acting OPM Director Beth Cobert wrote in a Nov. 18 memo to chief human capital officers.

The moratorium ends whenever a new agency head is appointed, OPM guidance said.

During this time, OPM will not accept any new QRB cases. It will also suspend the usual 90-day deadline for agencies to submit QRB cases.

The QRB is the process that SES candidates must go through to ensure they’ve met the right requirements and have the proper skills and experience to become a senior executive.

OPM will consider some exceptions to the temporary SES hiring freeze, particularly if failing to certify an SES candidate would have a negative impact on homeland security, national security or a critical agency mission or program.

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The moratorium doesn’t apply to agencies whose leader’s resignation wasn’t requested by the President. In this case, U.S. marshals, U.S. attorneys, inspectors general, termed appointees and appointees serving in independent or regulatory agencies are exceptions.

This isn’t a new practice. OPM said it’s continuing to follow a generally established precedent during past election years, Cobert said.

Finally, a final rule on career tenure

On Election Day, OPM issued a final rule that will change eligibility requirements to move from career-conditional to career status.

Draft regulations for the same rule came out in January 2014 — nearly three years ago.

Currently, a federal employee must serve for three consecutive years, with “substantially continuous creditable service,” to achieve career tenure.

OPM’s final rule removes the “substantially continuous” requirement for career tenure, meaning a federal employee, for example, could join federal service, work at an agency for two years, leave government for 30 days or longer, return to an agency and work for just one year more to earn “career” status. Before, that employee would essentially have to start over and work for three consecutive years before achieving career tenure.

The change affects a federal employees’ ability to be reinstated to a civil service position and his or her status during a reduction in force (RIF), said Jeff Neal, senior vice president for ICF and a former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department.

An employee with career status typically has seniority over a career-conditional employee in the event of a RIF.

“If someone goes through a RIF, it’s a big deal,” he said. “It could affect thousands of people, but it’s not going to affect tens of thousands of people a year.”

The change goes into effect Dec. 8, 2016.

Student loan repayments

Agencies gave 9,610 employees more than $69.5 million in student loan repayment benefits in 2015, according to OPM’s annual report. About 13 percent more employees received these benefits in 2015 compared to 2014, and agencies contributed 18.4 percent more toward those benefits compared with the previous year.

Eligible employees received an average of $7,238 in benefits in 2015, slightly better than the previous year’s average of $6,937.

Agencies spent about $58.7 million on benefits for 8,469 employees in 2014. Though 2015’s numbers are an improvement over the previous year, they’re still well below totals from a few years ago. In 2010, for example, agencies gave 11,359 employees more than $85 million in repayment benefits.

The departments of Defense, Justice, State and Veterans Affairs, along with the Securities and Exchange Commission used the program the most in 2015. Those agencies combined spent a total of $57 million on student loan repayment benefits for 7,314 employees.

Agencies often used the program as an incentive to attract top talent in the science, technology and engineering fields to government. DoD, for example, offered repayment benefits to 776 engineers in 2015, the report said.

VA also made good use of the program, providing benefits to 26 percent more employees in 2015 over the previous year. The department primarily used repayment incentives for contract specialists, human resources specialists, pharmacists and psychologists, many of which are mission-critical skills gaps for VA.

SEC began using a new, automated system for accepting and approving student loan repayment applications in 2015, which prompted positive feedback from the agency’s participants, the report said.

Thirty-two agencies used the program last year, compared to 33 agencies in 2014. At the program’s height in 2010, 36 agencies offered loan repayment benefits.

Once again, budgetary constraints are the biggest barrier for agencies who want to use student loan repayment program but don’t have the funds — or enough of it — to offer loan benefits as a recruitment tool or incentive.

“Several agencies specifically commented that budgetary issues were a major impediment to using or maximizing the use of student loan repayments as a recruitment or retention tool in 2015 and would likely remain one in the future,” the report said.

Other agencies said the three-year service requirement that’s a condition of receiving student loan repayment benefits is also a challenge.

“Some job candidates or current employees are uncomfortable committing to a minimum 3-year period of service in return for student loan repayment benefits,” OPM added.