Federal workers scrambled last week to interpret how President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze of civilian employees might affect seasonal firefighters and other part-time employees such as trail crews.
Trump’s order stated “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”
“The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” the order continued. “In addition, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”
National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Council President Melissa Baumann said the order left her in the dark about U.S. Forest Service staffing.
“We’re waiting to see where the chips fall,” she said.
Baumann said in 2015, the Forest Service hired about 11,000 seasonal workers. At least 6,200 of those were related to firefighting. But many were for positions such as logging sale analysts, trail maintenance workers, and forest rangers.
“We are waiting for further clarification and direction from the Office of Personnel Management related to the hiring freeze,” said Jennifer Jones, fire and aviation management spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Washington Office.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the sweeping language of the order left it difficult to interpret.
“As to what qualifies as public safety, you’ve got me,” Ruch said. “Our weather forecasting capacity has declined, because of a substantial loss of National Weather Service personnel. They can’t remedy that unless weather forecasting is a public safety matter.”
Ruch said the duration of the freeze was also up for debate. The order requires the Office of Management and Budget to produce a long-term plan to reduce federal workforce through attrition within 90 days. But that plan must be done in consultation with the director of the Office of Personnel Management, which doesn’t have a nominee for the position named yet. The hiring freeze will not expire until the OMP attrition plan is implemented.
That will run afoul of the Forest Service’s annual hiring cycle, according to NFFE Fire Chairman Joe Duran.
“By the time you get your undersecretary and all those people in place, you’re 60 to 90 days behind the scene and off schedule,” Duran said. “I’m pretty sure they’ll give a (public safety) exemption, but you still won’t be able to staff up in a timely manner.”
Trump’s order also said “contracting outside the government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” That raised concerns within the Forest Service, where many tasks such as drafting environmental impact statements are handled case-by-case through private contracts.
The Forest Service has struggled to accomplish regular tasks in recent years because of increased demands of firefighting nationwide. In what’s known as “fire-borrowing,” the agency has had to spend more than 50 percent of its total budget on firefighting activity and pay for it by raiding budgets for other services.