Politics & Government

Federal hiring freeze: Longer waits, unemployment lines for some Texans

Cody Edwards thought he had landed his dream job.

The Irving man was so excited to move to Port Aransas on New Year’s Eve with his pregnant wife to start a new job at the Padre Island National Seashore, also known as PINS, on Jan. 8.

But soon after the two settled into their new Corpus Christi home, he learned there was a glitch with his paperwork. Weeks dragged by, but he finally was cleared to head to work.

Then he got the call.

Officials told him the job he moved back to Texas for no longer existed, after President Donald Trump announced a temporary federal hiring freeze.

“It was the worst feeling,” said Edwards, 33, who had left behind a job at Oklahoma State University, where he was working on his doctorate. “I left a job with insurance and my wife did as well. And we were here with nothing. It was pretty scary.”

But he was one of the lucky ones.

He reached out to members of Congress, including the office of U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, which contacted several people, especially a National Park Service legislative liaison who helped Edwards regain his job as a visitor use assistant at PINS.

Most North Texans likely won’t feel the impact of the federal hiring freeze as dramatically as Edwards and his family did.

But federal dollars flow to thousands of North Texans who work here at government branches ranging from the General Services Administration and Federal Aviation Administration to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth and the Internal Revenue Service.

Some fear this region will be hard hit by the freeze.

“We have a great deal of federal dollars in Ft Worth and this will hurt us more than others,” Veasey posted on Facebook after the hiring freeze was put in place last month.

North Texas is home to around 46,000 federal jobs, including nearly 16,000 in the Fort Worth-Arlington region, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from December 2016 shows.

Across the state, there were 113,026 federal employees as of September 2016, and around 137,000 federal retirees, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management data.

Many may see the impact of the hiring freeze in smaller ways, maybe with longer lines at the post office. Or tax returns that take longer to process. Or having a harder time reaching someone at the Social Security office.

“Essential government services remain unaffected by the freeze but even non-essential services affect Texans every day, whether we know it or not,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Many in Texas rely on federal funds for basic services, so if these are inefficiently delivered, it makes complex problems more challenging.

“If this freeze is a precursor to permanent cuts, as the administration has hinted, the effects of reduced or understaffed personnel may lead to longer wait times or delayed services from the federal government unless the administration can find a way to make the new smaller government more efficient.”

Congressional reaction

The Star-Telegram reached out to the offices of the state’s senators and of U.S. House members whose districts include Tarrant County to get reaction to the federal hiring freeze.

Three responded.

Veasey is upset about the ongoing freeze and notes that there are at least 170 federal employee job openings in North Texas within a 50 mile radius of Arlington that for now will remain unfilled. That doesn’t include unpaid internships.

“The federal hiring freeze further burdens our already short-staffed federal agencies across the country,” he said. “Instead of trying to increase the efficiency of our federal government, President Trump has chosen to implement a policy that means our nation’s veterans will face longer wait times for the benefits they have rightfully earned, senior citizens may experience a lag in receiving their social security benefits, and women and children may not be able to access food assistance they are entitled to receive.”

He said he’s also concerned about the FAA, which hired around 4,700 new air traffic controllers across the county over the past five years and plans to hire more than 7,400 more controllers in the next five years. He cosponsored the Air Traffic Controller Hiring Improvement Act of 2016 and is worried about how the hiring freeze could impact the FAA, which he said has “faced a number of hiring challenges in recent years.”

Two local Republican House members say the freeze is not a bad thing.

“It is always prudent to pursue efficiencies and potential cost-saving improvements in the federal workforce,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, whose district includes part of Arlington. “We have many dedicated and able federal employees in Texas, and we should always look for better ways to utilize their skill sets.”

More than that, he and others say, the hiring freeze is just temporary and will just last for a total of three months.

“Congressman Williams has said since he first ran for Congress that the size of government is growing too big, while our economy is not recovering quickly enough,” said Vince Zito, communications director for Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, whose district stretches from the edges of Tarrant County through Austin.

“Rep. Williams supports shrinking the size of government and using that money to help our veterans, rebuild our military and reimburse the taxpayers.”

Impacted Texans

Edwards — who grew up in Irving, where his mom still lives — said he realizes how lucky he was.

First he was frustrated because he didn’t get the job he had accepted, and had turned down other interviews and job offers after landing the position in Port Aransas.

Then he was so grateful for the help he received from Veasey’s office and the National Parks Service liaison in regaining the job, which is part of the government’s Pathways Internship Program.

Fortunately, he and his wife had enough savings that the job delay didn’t wipe them out financially. And he learned that he really did have a job after all right before his daughter Elena Catherine was born.

“It has been a whirlwind of emotions,” he said. “We’ve gone from the lowest to lows to getting what amounts to a dream job. Then our child was born.

“My wife and I shed a few tears,” Edwards said. “It worked out — thank God.”

Countless other North Texans may be directly impacted.

At the Naval Air Station, for instance, officials say they don’t have a total of how many jobs will remain vacant because of the hiring freeze. They do note that some positions will be exempt because of public safety and national security needs.

Jobs openings at the base are still being advertised online at usajobs.gov. Anyone hired before Jan. 22 with a “confirmed start date” for no later than Feb. 22 should head to work on their assigned day, said Karin Krause, a spokeswoman for the base.

But any positions where new hires didn’t have that confirmed start date will be reviewed and possibly revoked.

“NAS JRB Fort Worth’s mission is national security, and our entire civilian workforce contributes to the accomplishment of that national security mission,” Krause said. “However, the Secretary of Defense has determined that implementing these temporary hiring limitations ensures that our workforce is aligned to our highest priorities, and resources are allocated in a manner that promotes effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

The freeze

Trump on Jan. 23 implemented an immediate hiring freeze to stop efforts to fill vacancies, including seasonal jobs, at federal agencies throughout the country.

Some jobs involving national security, the military and public safety were exempted, as well as some posts at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Other posts exempted include those focusing on cybersecurity, nuclear reactors, contingency planning and treaty enforcement.

Trump indicated that his three-month hiring freeze, which was mentioned in his “Contract with the American Voter,” is geared to keep the federal government from swelling before his budget director can put forward a plan to reduce the number of federal employees across the country.

But some federal workers say they are already understaffed.

“The whole premise of the hiring freeze is that there are too many federal workers,” said Kevin Tinker, an immigration service officer and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3377. “We’ve always been too little for too much work. We’ve been overworked and overstressed and the premise is wrong.

“We’re trying to do our best to get the work done and we need more employees, not less.”

Trump’s memo asked that workers “seek efficient use of existing personnel and funds to improve public services and the delivery of these services.”

It also stated that the hiring freeze “does not prohibit making reallocations to meet the highest priority needs and to ensure that essential services are not interrupted and national security is not affected.”

The number of federal jobs in Tarrant County has dropped through the year in every period since the fourth quarter of 2013, BLM statistics show.

“The American people rely on the work that federal workers do to protect our food, medicines, our air and water, to safeguard our nuclear weapons and our economy, to assist the most vulnerable senior citizens and young children, and to ensure taxpayers have the help they need,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents federal workers across the country, including those in the local chapter that serves employees in Fort Worth and North Texas.

“Empty desks, dormant computers and ringing telephones don’t deliver vital public services and safeguard our nation,” he said in a statement to the Star-Telegram. “Federal workers do.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley