Executive Orders and Their Impact on Federal Workers

With the injunction against President Trump’s Executive Orders lifted, what will be the impact on the federal workforce?

In May 2018, President Trump issued several Executive Orders regarding the administration of the federal workforce.

A federal appeals court has now lifted the injunction that had been in place preventing President Trump’s executive orders from going into effect. Now that the injunction has been lifted, the orders will be in full effect.

The Executive Orders will impose a number of changes on the federal workforce. Here are some of the major changes.

Making It Easier to Fire Federal Workers

  • The new orders will impact how long federal workers have to improve their performance after receiving a bad review. The time to improve will be reduced from 120 days to 30 days.
  • Agencies will be encouraged to remove (fire) poor performers rather than suspending them.

New Restrictions on Federal Employee Unions

  • Under the new executive orders, unions will be charged rent for federal office space and will not be reimbursed for travel expenses or for hours spent appealing worker firings.
  • All federal employees will be ordered to spend 75 percent of their time doing the work for which they were hired as a federal employee.
  • Federal agencies will be required to publicly post union contracts in an online repository.
  • Agencies will be encouraged to conclude negotiations with federal employee unions in less than a year.
  • The use of official time will be severely restricted. Official time is the system under which federal employees are paid salary and benefits working on behalf of the union rather than performing other work. Federal employees will not be allowed to spend more than 25 percent of their time on union or other non-agency business.
  • Unions will be charged rent for using space in federal buildings.
  • The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently reported the federal government spent almost $175 million paying employees working on “official time” in 2016. Testimony in Congress indicated the actual figure may be much higher than $175 million.

It is not a surprise that federal employee unions have had a strong reaction to the Executive Orders and have been seeking out any legal option available to prevent their implementation. For most federal employees though, there will not be major changes in their daily work.

In fact, many—perhaps most—federal employees probably see at least some of the changes as beneficial. In the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey, the Office of Personnel Management made the following observation about the results of the survey:

  • Only 28% believe that, in their work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve
  • Only 25% believe that pay raises depend upon how well employees perform their jobs
  • Only 34% believe that promotions in their work unit are based on merit
  • Only 42% believe that awards in their work unit depend upon how well employees perform their jobs
  • Only 34% believe that differences in performance in their work unit are recognized in a meaningful way.

The vast majority of federal employees work hard and do a good job. Some do not. Those working in government apparently realize the federal government does not do a good job of dealing with poor performers or problem employees.

In fact, the same survey found federal employees report they:

  • Are willing to put in extra effort to get their job done (96% positive)
  • Are looking for ways to do their jobs better (91% positive)
  • Know how their work relates to agency goals (85% positive)
  • Believe their work is important (90% positive)
  • Believe they produce high-quality work in their work unit (84% positive).

It is not surprising that employees who work hard and do a good job resent someone who does not have the same work ethic or ability to do the work but remain on the job anyway while still collecting a salary and federal employee benefits.

OPM is taking steps to make it quicker and easier to remove employees who are not performing or engaging in actions that create a disciplinary problem in an organization.

Employees recognize there is a problem. The Executive Orders and the guidance from OPM recognize the problem and are taking steps to address the issue. These changes will potentially benefit many of the hard-working, competent people in the federal workforce and help agencies be more successful in accomplishing their stated goals.

Union Reactions to the Executive Orders

It is not hard to see why federal employee unions do not like these Executive Orders. They are describing the lifting of the injunction as “union-busting” and a “sad day for the country”.

The Executive Orders may eventually impact the finances for unions. There will be fewer federal employees working full-time on behalf of the unions and agencies are likely to start charging for use of government facilities. To make up for this loss of revenue, unions will have to charge members more for their services, reduce their level of service, or recruit more members to pay dues.

Unions are not going to agree to these changes. There will be numerous cases sent before the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) and the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) for resolution. This will take time which, unions hope, will result in a new White House occupant before the changes do substantial harm to their role in federal agencies.

Most taxpayers would probably support the restrictions as more federal employees will be working in the jobs for which they were hired rather than working for a union. President Trump presumably thinks this issue will be helpful or at the very least not have a negative impact on his re-election chances. It is part of the strategy for “draining the swamp” often noted in his campaign to become president and most federal employee unions would not be supporters in any event.

Much of this is foreseeable. The unions are fighting the administration on virtually every initiative. They were doing this before the Executive Orders were issued and will continue to do so.

They also routinely support Democrats running for office and have made the federal workforce more political in the process. In all likelihood, many Republicans probably see the federal employee unions as a political adversary.

Having a more politicized federal workforce is not a good thing. The civil service was created to avoid using the federal workforce as a political tool or as a reward to campaign workers who want a good paying job.

From the union’s standpoint, this too shall pass. They will continue to support Democrats and, when there is a Democrat occupying the White House, they will probably reap the benefits of their enthusiastic support.

Many in the federal workforce will not see an impact and will continue to perform their jobs. If the Executive Orders create a better working environment for people, they will enjoy that benefit. Most of the litigation and wringing of hands about the negative impact will be considered background noise from those with the most to lose.

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