Federal employee unions are on edge after President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE called on Congress Tuesday night to give agencies the power to fire federal workers at will.
In his first State of the Union address, Trump praised the VA Accountability Act — a law he signed last year to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees accused of misconduct — and called for similar powers to be extended to all agencies.
“All Americans deserve accountability and respect and that is what we are giving them,” he said.
“So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
Some are viewing the statements as a clear threat to the federal workforce, which Trump vowed on the campaign trail to cut drastically. The workforce has already seen a decline in his first year.
“I think it should be extremely alarming to federal workers and extremely alarming to the American public,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal and D.C. government workers.
“It appears the president and others want to go back to a spoils system,” he said, referring to the 19th century system that allowed the winning political party to fill civil service jobs with friends and supporters.
Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, another labor union, criticized Trump for touting the VA Accountability Act and calling for authorities that already exist.
"Current law and regulations that govern the federal workforce allow for ample options to reward good performers and discipline or remove employees for poor performance and misconduct," he said in a statement.
The VA Accountability Act, Erwin said, destroys protections put in place to protect workers from baseless retaliatory actions.
“This kind of fear silences whistleblowers, hampers recruiting and retention efforts and discourages innovation to challenge the status quo," Erwin said.
But advocates of civil service reform say the current system makes it almost impossible to fire a federal employee, even for gross misconduct.
“I’ve never seen a case, unless someone did something dramatic, take less than three to six months,” said Bob Gilson, a federal agency consultant and writer for FedSmith, a news service for current and former federal employees. “In performance cases, it usually takes a year.”
Currently, employees have the right to appeal a suspension, demotion or removal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Employees represented by labor unions may pursue negotiated grievances that end in binding arbitration before independent arbitrators, a spokesperson at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said. And claims of discrimination, as well as whistleblower retaliation, can be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Gilson said the system, which works more like a court, needs to be drastically improved.
“I believe it is just as hard to fire a federal employee as it is to convict someone of a crime in a D.C. court,” he said.
In a statement Wednesday, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said the administration is taking a targeted approach to federal workforce reform to better prepare for the future.
“As the President indicated in the State of the Union last night this would include streamlining processes for hiring and rewarding the best talent, and removing the poor performers,” Gidley said.
He said the White House is planning to highlight these reforms in its upcoming fiscal 2019 budget proposal.
Under Trump, the number of federal employees has already seen a noticeable decline. According to FedScope, an OPM database, the number has dropped by a little more than 9,000, from 2,097,038 employees in September 2016 to 2,087,747 employees in September 2017.
A recent NBC–Wall Street Journal poll found that 58 percent of Americans think the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs. To do that, there needs to be more federal employees, not fewer, according to Cox, of the AFGE.
“No organization fires its way to success,” he said.
But some Republicans on Capitol Hill are also calling for action to hold federal employees more accountable.
Rep. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaIndiana governor asks state Supreme Court to review law giving legislators greater emergency powers Judge strikes down several Indiana abortion provisions Federal judge will not block Indiana University's vaccine mandate MORE (R-Ind.) has offered legislation to make all new federal workers able to be “removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all,” according to the text of the bill.
Rokita offered the bill in 2016, too, but it never made it out of committee. In a press release at the time, he said Americans are tired of seeing federal employees engaging in misconduct, receiving consistently poor performance reviews and abusing the appeals process at taxpayers’ expense.
While the legislation could move through the House, it has little chance of passing the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority.
Rokita’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In December, Rep. Lloyd SmuckerLloyd Kenneth SmuckerSixth House GOP lawmaker issued K metal detector fine Ethics panel dismisses GOP lawmaker's ,000 metal detector fine House Ethics panel upholds ,000 metal detector fine against GOP lawmaker MORE (R-Pa.) introduced the Department of Labor Accountability Act to give the Labor secretary the authority to reprimand, suspend, reassign, demote or fire senior department employees for misconduct or performance.
Employee advocates, meanwhile, warn that the ability to fire workers at will could cripple a government that's run by career civil servants.
“It’d be like someone in the Army saying we’re going to fire everyone in the Army as we see fit,” said Nick Woodfield, principal and general counsel at The Employment Law Group law firm.
“Suddenly you’ve thrown out all the institutional knowledge and damaged yourself.”