Energy & Environment

Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants

A new executive order from President Trump makes it easier to hire and fire civil servants that work on policy, stripping some protections from career employees before a potential change in administration.

Federal employee unions are billing the order as the biggest change to federal workforce protections in a century, converting many federal workers to "at will" employment. 

It also makes it easier to hire new employees outside of the competitive process - something critics say could be used to hire policy employees without appropriate experience.

The order specifically targets policy-related career positions, a move critics say will enable the administration to fire employees that may question their policies.

"By targeting federal workers whose jobs involve government policies, the real-world implications of this order will be disastrous for public health, the environment, the defense of our nation, and virtually every facet of our lives," Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a release.

"Through this order, President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him - not to America," Kelley added.

Trump's order creates a new category of federal employment, Schedule F, and gives agencies 90 days to determine which policy-related positions should attain the new status. Those employees could then be removed for performance reasons without the opportunity to contest the decision or rely on union representation.

"Agencies need the flexibility to expeditiously remove poorly performing employees from these positions without facing extensive delays or litigation," the order states.

The National Treasury Employees Union, another major federal workforce representative, called it "yet another in a long line of attacks on the civil service and circumvention of the laws passed by Congress to protect certain career federal employees from partisan, political interference."

Though civil service protections are often compared to tenure for professors, they are similar to processes in place at private companies, where employees must be notified of performance issues and given a chance to improve before being dismissed.

"This is not solving some problem of 'you can't get rid of federal employees.' You can. If people aren't really performing you can get rid of them. Trust me, I've done it," said Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who previously served as deputy director for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"But you have to go through the appropriate steps and you have to deal with fair labor laws, which you actually should have to do," he added.

But Rosenberg sees another potential side effect of the order: current political appointees could be among employees transitioned into the new Schedule F category, a way to "burrow in" employees that typically turn over with a change in administration.

While the new category makes it easier to fire employees for performance issues, they would still be protected from being dismissed "on the basis of the employee's partisan affiliation."

Rosenberg gave the example of new employees hired at NOAA that have a history of questioning climate science.

"It's always going to cut both ways," he said, "but just gaming this out, the Trump administration can say 'Oh, it's not partisan. We've had examples [of poor performance] over four years with this person, and they really need to go.' But Biden coming in would have to build a record showing this isn't a partisan action."

The Trump administration has taken numerous actions that critics say have chipped away at the nonpartisan nature of the government, from violating the Hatch Act by encouraging political speech to sidelining scientists. The administration has also moved federal agencies outside of D.C., each time resulting in a loss of as much as 70 percent of staff.

"What it seems like is little brick on top of little brick but what is actually going on is they are building a wall around politics and centralizing political power" for systems that are designed to be apolitical, said Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert with the Campaign Legal Center.

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