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Trump makes it easier for federal agencies to say, 'You're fired'

In this May 28, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The country's 2 million-person federal workforce is facing uncertainty after President Donald Trump signed a set of executive orders that could make it easier for supervisors to tell employees, "You're fired."

Last week, President Trump continued his push to limit the size and cost of the federal bureaucracy with three new rules that will change how federal workers unions organize and make it easier to dismiss under-performing workers.

Compared to the private sector, federal government workers are 44 times less likely to get fired or laid off, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.

That statistic can mean one of two things, explained Andrew Biggs, who works on public and private sector compensation issues at the American Enterprise Institute. "Either the federal government is exceptionally good at choosing employees ... or it's not dismissing employees who otherwise would have been dismissed in a private sector job." Based on his experience working for the government, the latter is more likely.

The largest federal workers union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) issued a press statement describing the president's actions as "more than union busting – it’s democracy busting." J. David Cox Sr., president of AFGE, argued the new executive orders "strip agencies of their right to bargain terms and conditions of employment and replace it with a politically charged scheme to fire employees without due process."

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, whose state has among the largest number of federal employees, denounced the rule change as an attack on the federal workforce and "a cheap political stunt."

Briefly, the executive orders will do the following:

"Streamline" the removal of workers who fail to perform

  • The rule will allow the "efficient removal of bad employees," according to a White House statement. Under the previous rules, an agency had to go through a multi-phased appeals process in order to lay off a worker for poor performance or misconduct. The new rule would give workers a shorter time to prove their performance is up to par. Supervisors would also be able to fire employees "without first engaging in progressive discipline."

Restrict the amount of "taxpayer-funded union time"

  • Currently, members of federal labor unions are paid for the time they spend organizing on behalf of their union. That includes addressing grievances, whistleblowing and lobbying for better work conditions and compensation. The new rule would cut the amount of "official time" by an average of two-thirds, limiting the amount of time government workers spend on non-agency activities.

Fast-track collective bargaining agreements

  • Union organizers will have a one-year time-frame to conclude collective bargaining agreements. Collective bargaining agreements can take years to settle, "with taxpayers paying for both sides’ negotiators," the executive order states. The new order will limit the time spent on negotiations and require the unions to pay for their own representation.

For the Trump White House and other advocates of small government, the plan will improve the efficiency of the federal labor force and is expected to save taxpayers approximately $100 million per year.

"I think the reforms were a long time coming," said Chris Edwards, editor of DownsizingGovernment.org and policy director at the Cato Institute. "The lack of firing done by the federal government is extraordinary. In the private sector, things go wrong and heads roll. You just don't see that in the federal government."

The latest example of federal agencies' inability to fire bad employees was the 2014 scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. For years, the VA was plagued with systemically bad management, long wait-times for veterans to receive health care and employees manipulating wait time data.

When Trump took office, he made the VA ground zero for loosening federal employee protections, signing a law that enabled the Department of Veterans Affairs to swiftly discipline and fire employees. Under the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, the Veterans Affairs Department fired 2,537 people.

Last week's executive orders are a continuation of the Trump administration's effort to remove government employees based on performance and also restrict the growth of the federal workforce. During his first month in office, Trump immediately implemented a hiring freeze across the federal agencies.

Because of strong civil service protections and a lengthy appeals process, federal managers often faced a difficult choice. Either they could dedicate themselves to the time-consuming and difficult process of dismissing an unsatisfactory employee, or dedicate themselves to public policy, Biggs explained.

"There are federal employees, not all of them, who would likely be dismissed in private sector jobs, who are not dismissed from federal employment because of the way the rules are set up," he said.

According to the White House, it can take six months to a year to remove a tenured federal employee for poor performance. After that, it takes an additional eight months to resolve appeals. That process will be significantly shortened under the new rule.

Biggs agreed there would be cost-savings if supervisors are able to more quickly resolve issues with employees who are not pulling their weight, adding it could also improve the overall morale of the workforce.

"It's kind of demoralizing if you are a good employee, as most federal employees are, to have to work with somebody who isn't," he said.

That view was reflected in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. In 2017, only 31 percent of federal workers said they agreed that steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.

Unions and advocates still worry workers will be subject to arbitrary treatment by the Trump administration.

The National Treasury Employees Union president Tony Reardon argued the new rules guarantee federal workers will "lose their ability to challenge unfair, arbitrary and discriminatory firings and other actions." The union is considering legal action to challenge the Trump administration.

The rule change will take time to go into effect and could easily be rolled back by a new administration.

"There may be downsides and dangers to it," Biggs said. "But as long as it's done within reason, I think it is something that will make the federal workforce more efficient."

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