Should Federal Employees Be ‘At Will’ Employees?

Should federal employees be “at will” employees? It is unlikely changes of this magnitude outlined in a recent bill will be implemented as there will be fierce opposition. Here is a summary. users will be reading about the Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act in coming weeks.  The bill has not yet been introduced in the new Congress, however, it is already receiving publicity from federal employee interest groups opposed to the changes.

Those with an interest in this proposed legislation will find strong views for and against it. Would it promote accountability? In some ways, it would. However, most federal employees will not favor the changes.

The reality is that any bill that is finally passed will likely be changed significantly before becoming law. If this bill advances in Congress, FedSmith will notify readers of the progress of the bill and changes that have been made to it.

Opinions on Accountability and Government Efficiency Act

Here is what AFGE National President David Cox writes about the bill in a press release:

“This bill is called the Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act, but it actually would do neither. In fact, a better title would be the Promote Fear and Political Allegiance Act, since it would give political appointees and their subordinates unchecked authority to target workers and politicize the civil service.”

On the other hand, here is what Congressman Todd Rokita (R-IN) writes about this bill:

“Americans are tired of seeing federal employees from the Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, and many other agencies maintain employment, at the taxpayers’ expense, after engaging in misconduct, receiving consistent poor performance reviews, and abusing the appeals process. Even more, taxpayers should not have to pay for employees who don’t answer letters, return phone calls, or solve problems that often times are created by the bureaucrats themselves. This bill is a step toward holding federal employees accountable to ensure that citizens are receiving the best service possible.”

Summary of the Bill Requirements

Here is what this bill would contain if it was passed into law as it was introduced last September:

  • Civil service employees would be hired on an “at will” basis beginning one year after enactment. This would only apply to new federal employees. These employees could be removed or suspended by the agency head for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all, without notice or right to appeal.
  • The bill specifies how an employee or applicant may seek a remedy under specified employment protection statutes with respect to an adverse personnel action.
  • The bill would allow an agency to suspend an employee for misconduct or poor performance. The employee could appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which would not be allowed to reinstate the employee until a final decision is made. In the case of critical necessity, an agency could immediately replace a suspended employee.
  • An employee or applicant would not be allowed to appeal an adverse personnel action to more than one agency.
  • The bill would prohibit an employee from receiving a pay raise if an employee does not receive a score of four or five out of five (or an equivalent rating) on the latest performance review. A grievance filed by an employee covered by a union contract that results in an increased performance rating could not provide a raise in pay as a remedy.
  • An individual appointed to the civil service who is not subject to this bill’s requirements regarding at-will employment may not be paid an annuity or retired pay on the basis of such service if the individual was finally convicted of a felony offense: (1) when such individual was performing creditable service, or (2) after such individual has separated from service if such offense is related to the performance of his or her government position.
  • An agency may transfer an individual occupying a Senior Executive Service position who is not an at-will employee to a position within the General Schedule.
  • The bill: (1) would eliminate authorizing official time for an employee serving as an exclusive representative when negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, and (2) prohibit an employee from using government property in carrying out any activities relating to the internal business of a labor organization.

Significance of the Changes

Predicting what will happen in the legislative process is difficult. Guessing what will influence Congress on a bill is murky at best.

The last election did represent a major change in government. Nevertheless, the federal government usually changes slowly and in increments.

Here is a quick assessment of what changes may occur as a result of this or similar bills.

For federal employee unions, one of the biggest changes in this bill would be the loss of using official time to negotiate labor agreements. Negotiating a new contract can take years in the federal government. There are few incentives to speed up the process. That would change if union representatives were not paid salary benefits while negotiating a contract. Federal employee unions would fight as hard or harder on this provision than most other changes to the federal program.

There are likely to be changes including more restrictions on use of official time. It is unlikely official time will be eliminated.

Changing federal employment to “at will” employment would be a major change for new federal employees. This provision is unlikely to pass.

It is more likely there will be restrictions on filing appeals. The current system allows federal employee appeals in multiple forums that can take years to resolve. That is not beneficial and likely to be addressed through this bill or others.

Pay for performance is likely to be addressed for federal employees in some way. If changes are made through the the legislative process, they will be difficult to impose. The changes are likely to be more gradual.

Prohibiting a federal annuity from being paid to a convicted felon would not impact a large number of employees. Most of the public would probably support such a change. If the bill starts to be taken seriously, this provision could pass as a bargaining chip to alleviate other proposed changes that would impact more people.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47