How Can We Revitalize the Federal Workforce? 6 Suggestions from NP Kelley’s Congressional Testimony

Categories: The Insider

AFGE President Everett Kelley on Feb. 23 testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations on how to rebuild the federal workforce, restore trust, and boost morale after the four-year trauma of relentless attacks from the Trump administration. 

Kelley opened his remarks with an acknowledgement that the attacks on the federal workforce did not begin with Trump and are unlikely to end with his re-election defeat. The attacks indeed dated back decades earlier and continued on in one form or another in every administration, making it easy for Trump to take things to the next level. 

Kelley, however, expressed hope that our union will be able to work with the Biden administration to help undo the damage and rebuild the workforce. 

“The words of President Biden’s executive order are truly encouraging, particularly its statement in favor of organizing, collective bargaining, and the notion of the federal government striving to be a model employer,” Kelley testified. “We believe that this reflects the President’s belief that a model employer is one that has a respectful and constructive relationship between management and the union representing its employees. Indeed, we look forward not only to a restoration of our collective bargaining agreements and re-set of the relationship between AFGE and the agencies on the national and local level, but to the formation of a real partnership that will allow us to work together to promote the mission of the agencies.” 

Here are the highlights from his testimony: 

1. Protecting the rights of federal employees is the number one way to restore trust and morale  

The previous administration created a toxic atmosphere of distrust and disrespect between management and employees’ unions. To restore employee morale and rebuild the civil service, we must protect employees’ union rights and the merit system. Giving political appointees and agency management unchecked power over the workforce would lead to the destruction of the merit-based civil service. We also must reject any civil service “reform” proposals that fail to protect employees against discrimination, unfair treatment, and the whims of their managers. 

“This constant need to protect and defend a system that should be the pride of every American is exhausting for federal workers,” Kelley testified. “It is a burden that federal employees and their unions should not have to shoulder by themselves. Everyone who values not even having to think about corruption in government agencies should be defending our civil service system.” 

2. Undoing the Trump administration’s anti-worker orders will require aggressive action from Biden administration 

Agencies’ human resources offices are an obstacle to implementing President Biden’s executive orders that repealed Trump’s anti-worker EOs. Agencies must be required to comply because it is already clear that discretion can be abused to the detriment of the workforce and agency mission. 

“Simply put, we have conveyed our view that if the new administration is not just as aggressive in enforcing its executive order as the previous administration was in enforcing its executive orders, then not much will really change.” 

3. Rebuilding capacity in federal agencies requires restoring adequate staffing levels  

The hollowing out of federal agencies during the past administration’s reign has been well-documented. The Departments of Labor, State, Interior, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation and Justice all suffered the loss of employment. Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency also lost substantial percentages of their workforces. Ironically, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which was a conscious target for privatization and still has almost 50,000 unfilled authorized positions, did not have an actual decline. 

A mass exodus of federal workers has hurt agency missions and those who remain. Corrections officers in the federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, are forced to work enormous mandatory overtime, and administrative personnel are being used excessively to supplement the corrections workforce. The severe understaffing of federal prisons combined with the dangers of the pandemic raging through the close quarters of these institutions have created almost unbearable working conditions.  

4. Federal wages and salaries are too low for agencies to be competitive  

The biggest obstacle to hiring is pay. For decades think tanks and contractors and academics have written lengthy reports about obstacles to federal hiring, but when the same job in the private sector pays 20% to 40% more, we lose candidates. There is no justification for underpaying federal employees and we will continue to press the case for higher pay across-the-board. 

5. The Office of Personnel Management must be strengthened 

The Trump administration’s attempt to dismantle OPM shone a spotlight on the agency’s problems, most of which derive from the fee-for-service model imposed on the agency in the 1990’s. This model has required agencies to use their own funding for OPM services and/or go to contractors for services that should be provided by OPM. That’s why restoring direct funding for all of OPM’s statutory functions will minimize costs for the government overall and reduce reliance on costly contractors. 

In order to strengthen the merit-system from efforts to corrupt or politicize federal workforce policies, agencies must be required to recognize OPM as the primary, if not sole, human capital resource entity for the federal government. Efforts to strip away or contract out OPM’s functions undermines the overall management of the civil service and are a dangerous substitute for full-staffing of OPM.  

6. The government must protect the federal workforce against COVID-19  

AFGE continues to advocate for automatic presumption of workplace illness to allow employees contracting the virus to seek compensation under the Federal Employees Compensation Act.  

In addition, as a model employer, the federal government should provide all those who have had to risk infection by continuing to work at their regular worksite throughout the pandemic should receive hazardous pay differentials, retroactive to March 2020.  

We believe that these two measures are the least the federal government can do to show that it does truly value the commitment and sacrifice made by the heroes of this pandemic, the frontline workers who put their lives on the line every day for the American people. 

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