For decades, civil service workers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and throughout the Defense Department relied on things such as seniority and veteran status for job security when layoffs hit.
That’s no longer the case for many.
In a change the Pentagon announced recently, job performance will be the key determination when layoffs, or a reduction in force, rolls through the ranks of civilian workers.
A Defense Department spokesman said no layoffs are in the works. But the change could shake a work culture that has abided by past rules of tenure, veterans preference, length of service and performance, in that order, when determining who stayed and who would leave the job.
“Probably the greatest impact would be concern and uncertainty among employees who are used to the existing system and there is always concern (when) a policy change is made that affects something as important as retention rights,” said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs in Washington, D.C.
The change does not sit well with the American Federation of Government Employees, a labor union which represents roughly 5,000 workers at Wright-Patterson.
“The Department of Defense should not elevate subjective performance ratings above military service and seniority when considering who gets laid off when the DoD downsizes or reorganizes,” Don Hale, AFGE defense conference chairman, said in a statement to this newspaper. “AFGE strongly opposes this rearrangement of the factors managers will use in deciding who gets to keep their job. The DoD should not punish veterans or their most senior employees by giving preference to those who curry favor with their bosses.”
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the change was “absolutely needed” and “long overdue.”
The defense budget expert has called for cutting the bottom 5 percent of work performers in the civilian defense workforce, saving $3 billion to $4 billion a year.
The Defense Department has a civilian workforce of more than 740,000 employees.
“If you talk to anyone who works in the civilian workforce in (the Department of Defense), they are likely to admit you could cut the bottom 5 percent, the people who are getting low performance ratings right now, and you would probably do better. You’d be more effective without them,” he said.
The money culled from the cuts could be spent on improving readiness, replacing laid-off employees, buying weapons, or increasing the size of the force, he said.
“There are a lot of good purposes that this money could be used for,” he said.
Greg R. Lawson, a senior policy analyst with the conservative think tank Buckeye Institute in Columbus, said it would support performance evaluations to set salaries and wage increases.
“We think this is typically found in the private sector and achieves the right incentives for aligning productivity with compensation,” he said in an email.
‘A big change’
President Donald J. Trump has taken quick action on federal workforce issues. In his first week in the White House, he signed an executive order imposing a hiring freeze, with some exceptions, for the next three months while his administration studies ways to trim the federal workforce through attrition. Military personnel are exempt from the latest order.
Wright-Patterson, which has more than 1,000 vacant positions on base today, is among the federal locations where the pause in hiring is in effect and where workers will be subject to the new layoff rule.
David Berteau, a former Pentagon assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, said the change in both how employees are evaluated on the job with incentives for superior performance and who gets laid off stand as a “big change.”
Berteau, chief executive officer of the Virginia-based Professional Services Council, added it will be “a year or two” before the impact of the change is known.
“The question that nobody knows the answer to is how real is this change in terms of who’s actually going to be affected by it? When will there be a (reduction in force)? Who would be covered by it? What would be the extent of that (reduction in force)? Those are all questions we don’t even have the beginnings of an answer to.”
The switch in policy predates the Trump administration, becoming law with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2016 and outlined by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work in a Jan. 19 memo, the day before Trump was inaugurated. The new rule applies only to civilian defense workers, but not other federal departments or agencies.
Harrison said Congress gave the Defense Department that authority in response to managers’ complaints they didn’t have the ability to fire low performers. Historically, the military has offered its civilian workforce early retirement incentives and buyouts to avoid layoffs and a reduction in force is rare.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, whose district includes all of Wright-Patterson, said in a statement he intended “to monitor this policy and ensure there are no unjust outcomes.”
“This authority has a limited application and is intended to be used only in emergency situations,” added the Dayton Republican, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “Under the current administration, I expect and will work towards increasing defense spending resulting in stronger Department of Defense operations.”
Layoffs rare at Wright-Patterson
The last reduction in force to claim layoffs hit at Wright-Patterson more than a decade ago, when 70 layoff notices were issued in 2004, and four employees were eventually separated, according to base spokeswoman Marie Vanover.
In the most recent Air Force “reduction in force” announcement last year, Wright-Patterson kept 20 employees facing the loss of their jobs in a “surplus status,” waiting for new job assignments on base, she said. The Air Force had targeted a reduction of 1,000 civilian employees throughout the service.
Under the new layoff rules, workers are placed in three different tenure categories and evaluated in separate groups of those who have been on the job for at least 12 months, and those who have less than 12 months. Employees receive job review ratings based on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the highest score. Temporary hires would be the first to be dismissed in a layoff, a Pentagon document shows.
Loren B. Thompson, a Virginia-based senior defense analyst for the nonprofit Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, said employees with long seniority have had their performance on the job evaluated many times.
Seniority and military service are “unambiguous measures of merit,” he said in an email. “If job performance becomes the main criterion for who goes and who stays, an element of subjectivity begins to creep into the system.
“In other words, there is more latitude and for bias and other emotionally based factors to shape outcomes,” Thompson wrote.
He added if “current job performance can trump past contributions to the organization, maybe over decades of service, the system could become politicized.” White collar jobs are harder to evaluate than those that are require more physical activity, such as maintenance, he said. White collars jobs are most in demand when a new administration takes over, he added.
“It isn’t hard to see how using job performance to decide who must go could lend itself to abuses,” he said. “That would be especially true in the case of minority employees.”
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