What is a RIF and How Does it Work?

What is a RIF? How does it work? Are RIF’s likely to occur in government?

While we do not know what will happen to funding of the federal government after the continuing resolution expires in late April, there has been a great deal of speculation about a “RIF” in some agencies. The President’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would, if enacted, probably lead to a RIF in some agencies.

Those agencies that now could lose jobs and money in a new federal budget include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of State and Department of Education. a number of smaller agencies are proposed for elimination. (See President’s Budget Sets New Federal Priorities)

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has also issued a new handbook on reshaping the federal workforce. There are large sections in the handbook on RIF’s and an agency’s transfer of functions. While we do not yet know what form reshaping the federal workforce will take, it is reasonable to assume that the timing for issuing this new guidance on running RIF’s and how to start preparing for a RIF is not a coincidence. (See OPM Releases ‘Reshaping’ Guidance for Agencies)

A RIF may occur for several reasons, as outlined below.

A “RIF” Is a Reduction-in-Force

When a federal agency has to abolish positions, RIF regulations determine if an employee remains in the same job.  Some employees will have the right move into a different position but remain employed in a federal job.

A RIF is a way to restructure an agency. Some people will lose their jobs. Some people will move into different jobs. Applying the RIF regulations determines who goes and who stays.

Reducing the size of the federal workforce is not quick, easy or without pain for those who are impacted. A cynic may conclude that RIF regulations were developed as a way to encourage federal agencies to provide more work to contractors rather than hiring more federal employees. The RIF process is kafkaesque in its complexity.

Filing an Appeal or Grievance

After all is said and done, an employee who has been separated, downgraded, or furloughed for more than 30 days by RIF has the right to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

An employee in a bargaining unit covered by a negotiated grievance procedure that does not exclude RIF must use the negotiated grievance procedure. The collective bargaining agreement covers the time limits for filing a grievance under a negotiated grievance procedure.

With the complexity of the process, there is likely to be plenty of room for an employee to file an appeal. Setting up and administering the RIF process takes time. The appeals that result from running a RIF can also take a long time. There will be cases where it takes several years for the process and appeals to be completed.

There will also be differences between agencies in how a RIF is run. See, for example, Jeff Neal’s article on DoD’s New RIF Rules: A Big Deal or Not?

Summary of the RIF Process

Here is a summary of how a RIF works based on guidance from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). This is just a very brief overview of how the process works and it leaves out a number of steps beyond the interest of most readers. When a RIF is implemented, there will be quirks, exceptions, and differences based on a variety of factors.

This is not a step-by-step guide. It only provides a very broad overview of the RIF process.

Retention Factors

Applicable law provides that RIF regulations must take into account four different retention factors:

  • Tenure of employment (i.e., type of appointment);
  • Veterans’ preference;
  • Total creditable Federal civilian and uniformed service; and
  • Performance ratings.

When Does a RIF Occur?

An agency must use RIF regulations before separating or demoting an employee for reasons that can include a reorganization, lack of work, shortage of funds, an insufficient personnel ceiling, or the exercise of reemployment or restoration rights.

Most RIF actions result from an agency’s reorganization. Abolishing a position does not always require using RIF procedures.

Setting a Competitive Area

When preparing for a RIF, the agency defines a “Competitive Area.” This area establishes the geographical and organizational limits for implementing the RIF.

The minimum competitive area is an organization in a local commuting area that is separate from other agency organizations. The differences may be in operations, work functions, staff, and human resources administration.

Defining the Local Commuting Area

While defining its competitive area, the agency also defines  “Local Commuting Area(s)” for a competitive area.

A local commuting area usually includes one population center in which employees live and travel back and forth to work.  There is not a standard mileage definition for a local commuting area. Instead, the agency must apply the regulations and determine what is reasonable for a specific geographic location.

Establishing Competitive Levels

As part of preparing to implement a RIF, the agency must establish competitive levels. A competitive level is established within a competitive area. A competitive level is when an agency groups interchangeable positions into “Competitive Levels.”

Each competitive level includes positions with the same grade, classification series, and official tour of duty (e.g., full-time, part-time, seasonal, or intermittent).

All positions in a competitive level have interchangeable qualifications, duties, and responsibilities. The agency establishes a competitive level based on employees’ official position descriptions—not an employees’ personal qualifications.

Retention Registers

After grouping interchangeable positions into competitive levels, the agency applies the four retention factors to create separate “Retention Registers” for each competitive level. “Competitive Level” and “Retention Register” generally have the same meaning.  A “Retention Register” is the ranking of employees in the competitive level after the agency applies the four retention factors.

Determining Retention Standing-Tenure

The agency ranks competitive service employees on a retention register in three groups and then divides them further into sub-groups:

  • Group I – Includes career employees who are not on probation.
  • Group II – Includes career‑conditional employees, and career employees who are serving a probationary period because of a new appointment.
  • Group III – Includes employees serving under term and similar non‑status appointments.

Within each subgroup, the agency ranks employees by their service dates. For example, the agency places the employee with the most service at the top of the subgroup, and places the employee with the least service at the bottom of the subgroup.

Determining Retention Standing-Performance

Employees receive extra retention service credit for performance. This is based on the average of the last three annual performance ratings received during the 4‑year period prior to the date the agency either (1) issues specific RIF notices, or (2) at its option, freezes ratings before issuing RIF notices.

The RIF competition determines how an employee will fare in a RIF. The agency releases employees from the retention register in the inverse order of their retention. For example, the agency begins with the employee who has the lowest standing in releasing employees from the competitive level as a reduction in force action.

Possible Right to Bump or Retreat to an Available Position

When a RIF is implemented, the terms “Bump” or “Retreat” will become familiar. These rights may arise when an employee is released from a competitive level. The impacted employee may then have bump or retreat rights to a continuing position on a different competitive level. That position may be available because it is occupied by another employee with lower retention standing.

“Bumping” means displacing an employee on a different competitive level.

“Retreating” means displacing an employee on a different competitive level with less service within the released employee’s own tenure group and subgroup.

RIF Notices

An agency must give an employee at least 60 days specific written notice before the employee is released from the competitive level by a RIF action.

If faced with an unforeseeable situation (e.g., a natural disaster), the agency may, with OPM approval, give the employee a specific RIF notice of less than 60 days, but at least 30 days, before the effective date of the RIF.

Will Agencies Run a RIF?

Most agencies will go to some lengths to avoid implementing a reduction-in-force. It is complex, messy, and subverts morale and efficiency. It is undoubtedly designed to be fair. In the process of being fair, it becomes unwieldy.

The chances of a RIF being run in most agencies are slim. There are often other options depending on circumstances and when a reduction has to be completed. Many employees who are eligible will choose to retire. Others, probably younger employees, will look for and often find another job.

The other large unknown factor is what will happen in Congress with the budget. While no one knows, the reality is likely to be that the anticipated cuts will be smaller than often anticipated or than those that have been proposed.

The legislative process is cumbersome and hard to follow. It often leads to unexpected results than may be more desirable than the worst case scenarios we envision before we know the actual outcome.

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