House paves way for 2-year probationary periods for federal employees

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New federal employees are one step closer to getting longer probationary periods.

House lawmakers passed the Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service (EQUALS) Act with a 213-204 vote Thursday afternoon. The bill, which Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) introduced in October, will extend the probationary period for most federal employees and senior executives from one year to two.

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Under the legislation, probationary periods for employees who need formal training or a specific license would start at the time of the job appointment to the date that’s two years after the time that the formal training ends or the license is granted.

The Government Managers Coalition, which offered its support of the bill earlier this month, argued a longer probationary period would give employees more time to complete specialized training and supervisors the time to properly evaluate their performance.

Entry-level field officers at the Social Security Administration, for example, require a four-month training class for new hires followed by field training, said Chris Detzler, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations. It can often take three-to-four years for an SSA specialist to become fully independent, he said.

Some House Democrats and the American Federation of Government Employees fought against the bill Thursday afternoon.

“One year is more than enough time for a competent manager to determine if new employees have the skills and ability to do the job they were hired to do,” AFGE National President J. David Cox said in a statement. “If managers are having trouble assessing a worker’s performance within a year’s time, the solution is better training for these supervisors — not more time.”

From the House floor, Democrats argued the legislation would undo certain civil service protections.

“Probationary employees will still have due process protections,” Comer, the bill’s sponsor, said. “Probationary periods have access to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Special Counsel. Each of those offices are empowered to hear appeals from probationary employees, and that will not change when [the EQUALS Act] becomes law. This bill is a much needed fix to the federal hiring process. It will allow the federal government to select the best and brightest civil servants to serve the American people.”

According to MSPB, probationary employees don’t have quite the same rights to appeal a disciplinary action that Title 5 federal employees have. MSPB only has jurisdiction over federal employees who have completed their probationary periods. Probationary employees can appeal to MSPB if they believe they’ve been fired for partisan or political reasons, but they can’t appeal disciplinary actions related to poor performance or misconduct.

“This bill would keep federal employees in a perpetual state of limbo, where they could be fired for any cause with little ability to appeal,” Cox said. “Civil service protections and the merit system exist to protect the government from politicization. Without these rights, employees on probation will have little to no protection against discrimination or retaliation.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee, led efforts to block the legislation, offering an amendment that instead called for the Government Accountability Office to study agencies that have already extended probationary periods.

“Almost no private sector company I know of would have a two-year probationary period, because they know it would make it hard to recruit talented employees,” he said.

Yet Connolly’s amendment, and a separate provision that would have exempted alumni from the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other national community service programs from a two-year probationary period, failed.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) applauded the passage of the bill.

“The EQUALS Act implements necessary reforms to benefit federal employees and advance the quality of our workforce,” he said in a statement. “The current probationary period of one year lacks adequate time for proper training and assessment of all critical aspects of increasingly complex federal positions.”