FEDERAL WORKFORCE:

Agencies face downsizing, significant personnel shift in Obama budget

Correction appended.

Earlier this week, National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes delivered some difficult news to his small agency: The White House budget would remove one employee from each of the 122 weather forecasting offices.

Twenty-four employees would keep their jobs, moving to regional offices that would serve as consolidated "help desks." Gone would be the extra hand during emergencies and the on-site information technology experts. Problems would be solved long-distance; IT employees who sometimes doubled as weather forecasters would vanish.

"We had to make some tough choices that affect people and programs. I want to reassure you that we will continue to find a way to meet our important critical mission delivery requirements," Hayes said, according to a rough transcript of a call with NWS employees. "I would like to tell you that FY 13 is the bottom of the hill, [but] we've had some initial discussions with folks in [the Office of Management and Budget], and I will say that my prediction is that some of these challenges will continue in 2014, 2015, 2016."

President Obama's budget is a wish list -- Congress is unlikely to pass a full budget on time in an election year, much less copy the White House blueprint. But many agencies are likely to face even tighter budgets next year, and the White House request provides a window into which areas will be targeted first.

Overall, Obama's budget would keep the government's workforce level steady at about 2.1 million employees. But that hides the shuffling between and within agencies, where some offices would lose staff to offset modest increases elsewhere.

At the National Weather Service, for example, officials plan to eliminate IT positions to help reach a 4.3 percent reduction in IT spending within the Department of Commerce. The department's overall workforce would increase by 3.7 percent in Obama's budget, but the Weather Service would still see its employees dwindle.

That angers union officials, who argue that the IT specialists are needed in forecasting offices that are staffed only for fair weather and are spread thin during emergencies such as tornados and hurricanes. Despite their titles, the IT specialists are more than computer experts, said Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

"These are the guys who ensure our technology is working and our forecasts are accurate," Sobien said. "Without an ITO on site, responses will be slower and lives will be lost during extreme weather events. This is an alarming move backwards when it comes to protecting the public."

The National Park Service is undergoing a similar problem, facing significant cutbacks to staff as the Interior Department plans for the loss of almost 1 percent of its overall staff in fiscal 2013. The National Parks Conservation Association warned yesterday that the reductions would lead to a net reduction of 218 full-time rangers and other Park Service staff (E&ENews PM, Feb. 14).

NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson said the agency's estimate was 185 full-time employees, including 175 from park operations. Such cuts could mean reduced visitor hours at parks, as well as a reduction in visitor services and resource stewardship.

The White House request would keep the agency's spending levels essentially steady; the total request is about $2.6 billion, which includes about $400 million of "mandatory appropriations" that remain fairly steady year to year and does not include the parks' operations.

NPS expects to lose about 2 percent of employees through attrition, Olson said, and may not fill those positions going into fiscal 2013. Employees who already see a few weeks of furlough each year might see those periods extended, and if the budget is especially tight, a "last resort" may be furlough periods for a small number of permanent employees.

The agency already faces some tough decisions this year as it enters its busiest season, Olson said. Last year's omnibus provided $2.2 billion in discretionary appropriations to the agency -- almost $700,000 below its request and about $550,000 less than fiscal 2011.

"We have the busiest part of fiscal 2012 in front of us, so we just really have tough decisions to make," he said. "We're trying to be as thoughtful as we can about them."

Cuts at the top

Agencies also seem to be shaving off staffing levels in their headquarter offices to ensure enough employees are available for prioritized programs. At Interior, the Office of the Secretary would have 42 fewer employees; 12 are moving to the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the Indian Arts and Crafts program, but 30 full-time positions would be eliminated.

It is part of an effort to streamline operations as Interior steadily decreases its workforce. In fiscal 2010, the department had about 70,090 employees; the White House budget estimates it will have 69,080 in fiscal 2013.

The Department of Energy has actually seen an increase in employees over the same period of time, ostensibly related to the $35 billion it received for expanded programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Under Obama's budget, DOE would lose about 100 positions in fiscal 2013, leaving 16,400 employees. However, that is still 300 more than in fiscal 2010.

About 50 of those positions would come from DOE's "departmental administration," which includes the Office of the Secretary, the Office of the General Counsel and other management functions. Such administrative offices had 1,191 employees in fiscal 2011; Obama's budget estimates that will dwindle to 1,175 this year and 1,125 in fiscal 2013.

DOE spokeswoman Niketa Kumar said the department has improved "work efficiency," primarily through better use of IT systems. DOE is also "working to leverage the skills of its federal workforce to reduce the costs associated with support contracts," she said.

In other words, the agency is taking tasks that once fell to outside contractors and assigning them to in-house employees. Between fiscal 2010 and 2011, Kumar said, DOE reduced its support service contracts by 28 percent.

U.S. EPA, meanwhile, would add positions under the White House budget, from an estimated 17,084 this year to 17,109 in fiscal 2013. But that is still less than the number of employees in fiscal 2011, about 17,238.

In fiscal 2013, EPA would also cut positions from some programs to hire more in others. Science and Technology research programs, for example, would see an increase of almost 40 employees. But the employees handling the Superfund program would decrease by about 60 to 3,055 -- a decline that matches the program's decrease in funding (Greenwire, Feb. 13).

Correction: Interior had about 70,090 employees in fiscal 2010; the White House budget estimates it will have 69,080 in fiscal 2013. A previous version of this story misstated those figures.