WASHINGTON — When U.S. President Donald Trump signed a Jan. 23 hiring freeze on civilian government jobs, it left the Pentagon scrambling to understand exactly what was and wasn’t impacted.
Ten days later, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has issued guidance on what civilian jobs are closed off — and the many types of exemptions which may allow the Pentagon to fill key spots.
A senior defense official, speaking to reporters ahead of the memo’s release, acknowledged that there is going to be an impact from the hiring freeze, noting “civilians are readiness, and we can’t accomplish our mission without them,” but tried to put a positive spin on the stoppage.
“I think because all of the department’s workforce are essential, there will be an impact. But there is, at the same time, an opportunity here where we can really look at how the department manages resources in an effective and efficient way, and we can really take this opportunity to help be part of the government-wide plan to try to optimize the entire federal civilian workforce,” the official said.
However, there will undoubtedly be an impact, if only because DoD loses between 7.5 to 8 percent of its civilian workforce every year to attrition. Many of those jobs will not be allowed to be rehired under the current freeze, even with the number of exemptions outlined in Work’s memo.
So, who can grant the exceptions? There is a wide range of leadership that gets a say.
The memo divides the civilian workforce into five groups, marked A through E. Civilian jobs that fall into groups A, B and C can receive exemptions on either a group or individual basis, while groups D and E do not require an extra exemption but may require some coordination at the higher levels to fill.
The good news for those spots that are vital is the department is looking into whether automation can be used once job categories are cleared for exemption. “I think we’ll be able to look at things by functions. I think those types of processes put in place now, perhaps there are certain positions that can be coded and you can extract those particular positions and take a more detailed look at them,” the official said.
So if, as an example, an IT professional spot at U.S. Central Command was declared exempt to the freeze, then the department could use the personnel management system to exempt all open spots of the same type.
The memo says that jobs in categories A, B and C can receive exceptions from the secretaries of the military departments; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on behalf of Joint Staff positions; the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, for Inspector General spots; and the deputy chief management officer on behalf of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the defense agencies, DoD field activities and any other part of the department not specifically mentioned.
In addition, if there are exemptions needed to support the Combatant Commands, the chairman will coordinate that process. Requests for exemption will be sent up to the office of the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness on a bi-weekly basis that line up with the pay periods of the organizations.
“Officials to whom exemption authority has been delegated must be prepared to justify their exemption decisions to me on a position-by-position basis,” Work warns in his memo. “I will follow closely any actions taken with respect to implementation of the hiring freeze and will hold these officials accountable for the exemptions they grant.”
As with any government freeze, there are special cases that require slightly tweaked rules.
The obvious workaround to a freeze is to hire contractors to do the jobs. But Work’s memo warns against that, noting that leaders “must ensure that contract actions are not taken to compensate for impacts of the hiring freeze.”
However, those with exemption authority can reallocate civilian employees to different jobs if they feel it is required, as long as those re-allocations don’t move work from a job with an exemption to one that does not qualify for one.
In addition, workers who are on temporary contracts can have their terms extended by the relevant authorities, the senior official said. And any worker who received an appointment before Jan. 22, and who has a documented start date listed on that appointment, will be able to start their jobs according to the offer that was made.
The official was also firm that there would be nothing enforced that went against collective bargaining agreements already in place.
Overall, it is unclear how many positions will be affected because of the exemption options, the official said.