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Some federal workers think President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts will add further injury to the insults they’ve already endured due to the federal hiring freeze and the hostile rhetoric about government workers.
“I’m concerned about the recent attacks on federal employees,” Joe Edgell, an Army veteran and EPA employee, said at the National Treasury Employees’ Union legislative conference March 1. The union represents 150,000 workers in 31 federal departments and agencies, including the IRS, SEC and FDA. Veterans like Edgell make up 30 percent of the federal workforce, NTEU president Tony Reardon said.
“I’ve worked under Democratic and Republican administrations, and in that time we worked to carry out federal law,” Edgell said. Criticism from Trump and Republican lawmakers “have made us question how the country values our service.”
The Office of Management and Budget recently proposed reductions to Environmental Protection Agency staff of about 20 percent and overall budget cuts of 25 percent, Bloomberg BNA reported this week.
In recent years, Republicans have made the trope of the overpaid federal worker who is notoriously difficult to fire because of union membership a mainstay of their talking points.
“When I served in the military, my service was considered honorable,” Edgell said. “When I traded my green uniform for this suit, all of a sudden my service is less valuable. It’s really disheartening when elected representatives continue to denigrate us.”
The president’s plan to submit a budget that boosts federal spending on defense by $54 billion, while cutting the same amount from domestic programs, has caused further alarm among federal workers and in many government agencies.
But some observers think the reaction may be a bit overblown.
“It’s understandable that many of the roughly 2 million civilian federal workers are concerned that their jobs could be on the line under President Trump’s recent budget directives,” Rachel Greszler, a policy analyst specializing in labor and Social Security at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis, told Bloomberg BNA March 2. “But it’s too soon to know how those directives will play out.”
The president said he would reduce the federal workforce through attrition when he put the hiring freeze in place. “This does not mean firing employees, but rather not replacing those who retire or leave for other jobs,” she said.
“While there could be some job cuts—particularly in agencies with the largest budget reductions—the most likely outcome for most federal employees is that they will keep their jobs, but they may be asked to stop performing some of their current duties [or] to change the way they do things,” according to Greszler.
In her assessment, the doom-and-gloom view about the proposed budget isn’t the entire picture.
“Many federal workers could actually benefit from the efforts of the President and his advisers and cabinet as they seek to do things like obtain better contracts and reduce inefficiencies, waste and abuse across the federal government,” Greszler said.
A number of Congress members, including Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), couldn’t be reached in time for publication. Labrador chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Meadows is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations.
Four out of five federal workers who serve as NTEU chapter leaders say morale is declining or worse than ever, according to an NTEU survey taken last week. Being a chapter leader means the employee serves as a representative within the union for their particular office or position.
In addition, 78 percent worry about their job security, and 71 percent are concerned about cuts to pay and benefits.
Also, 60 percent reported being worried that their agency lacks sufficient funding to meet its mission.
“We’re very much concerned, obviously, about these cuts,” Joe Acosta, a Customs and Border Protection officer, told Bloomberg BNA. CBP officers are different from border patrol agents, many of whom endorsed Trump.
“We work at land borders, sea ports and rails, so without proper staffing, not only do we suffer” in terms of working longer hours and having additional duties, “but the consumers and public suffers too because products will be held up at the border,” Acosta said.
Trump’s budget proposal is just that—Congress has ultimate authority to enact a budget. But the spending plan submitted by the president is nonetheless a strong message to lawmakers about the administration’s goals and priorities.
The proposed cuts also come on the heels of years of budget-tightening at many agencies.
The Veterans Affairs Department is “one of the most egregious examples,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) said at the conference. “Three years after the wait time scandals, there’s still 45,000 unfilled jobs at the VA.”
The president’s hiring freeze and proposed cuts are a “sick joke played on the American public” because “the problem will only get worse” under those proposed policies, Crowley said.
Another agency represented by the NTEU is in a particularly risky position, union members and leadership said.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin broke ranks with the administration when he said at his confirmation hearing, without prompting, that the IRS is understaffed. Mnuchin said he was “particularly surprised” that the IRS head count has gone down “almost 30 percent” since 2010.
“Especially for an agency that collects revenue, this is something I’m concerned about,” Mnuchin said.
Reacting to Trump’s budget proposal, the NTEU members largely echoed Mnuchin’s concerns, pointing out that more than 90 percent of national revenue is collected by IRS workers.
“Since 2010 the IRS has lost 23,000 employees, 30 percent of its workforce, and no organization can function well like that,” Reardon said. “The employees feel hamstrung. They don’t have the tools and resources to do their job, and the American public suffers because of that.”
IRS employee head-count has gone down in every state since 2011, including decreasing by almost half in Arkansas and Delaware. Washington, D.C., lost 19.5 percent of its IRS workforce; California lost 26.4; and New York lost 19.6.
The NTEU plans to prioritize legislative fights to secure fair pay, protect retirement benefits, preserve health care and safeguard due process rights. The union will also continue to oppose the hiring freeze and proposed budget cuts to ensure that the agencies that employ its members can carry out their mission.
“There are things potentially before us that are of real concern,” Reardon said. Those “are the kinds of fights we can get behind.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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