ASHEVILLE - The federal hiring freeze of all civilian employees, ordered by President Trump on Jan. 23, could negatively impact employment in Western North Carolina and the public services those agencies provide.
According to the executive order, no vacant positions existing at noon Jan. 22 may be filled and no new positions may be created. The order does not include or apply to military personnel or positions with national security or public safety.
The order also prohibits the hiring of contract workers who might be hired to circumvent the hiring freeze.
The mandate does not freeze pay raises. It does not limit the hiring of officials requiring presidential appointment or Senate confirmation
The Asheville area is home to some 3,300 federal employees and many federal agencies, including two of the most visited parks in the National Park Service, one of the most visited national forests in the United States, NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, which tracks all climate and weather data for the country, and many others such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs through Asheville on its 469-mile linear path, received 15.2 million visitors in 2016. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which has a half-million acres across North Carolina and Tennessee, set a visitation record last year with 11.3 million visitors.
Seasonal workers, hired for the busiest months from April to October, make up close to half the parks’ workforce. Their hiring might be delayed, which could lead to a delay in park facility openings.
The Smokies has 190 permanent employees and usually hires around 80 seasonal employees, said Dana Soehn, park spokeswoman.
“Staffing has gone down. We lost 30 positions over the past few years,” Soehn said.
The Blue Ridge Parkway employs 151 permanent workers and 125 seasonal workers, said parkway spokeswoman Leesa Brandon.
The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in WNC comprise more than 1 million acres of land. The Pisgah National Forest is the second busiest in the country, with an estimated 6 million visitors a year. All four forests in North Carolina, including the Uwharrie and Croatan, employ 188 workers, said Cathy Dowd, Forest Service spokeswoman. There are now 18 vacancies.
The Charles George VA Medical Center employs 1,730 workers, said Jeff Hillard, executive assistant to the VA's director. As of Jan. 25, USAjobs.com listed 19 openings for federal jobs within a 50-mile radius of Asheville. Eight openings at the VA include physicians, nurses and dental hygienists.
Agency managers say they are unsure how exactly the freeze will play out because they are waiting for specific details from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management.
These are the federal agencies tasked with devising a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government's workforce through attrition. The order "shall expire upon implementation of the OMB plan."
U.S. Reps. Mark Meadows and Patrick McHenry could not immediately be reached.
On Wednesday, the OPM issued a statement saying workers who were offered a job on or before Jan. 22 and have documentation showing a start date of Feb. 22 or earlier should report to work. Those whose start date falls later than Feb. 22, or who do not have a start date, may have their job offers revoked.
Jay Gerlach, associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said there are many unknowns about the hiring delay’s impact, but it could cause problems for WNC.
“With the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, my concern is that if just by chance they had an opening for a critical job, it would not be able to be filled for the foreseeable future,” Gerlach said.
“Another problematic issue is that there is specific language prohibiting contract hiring. If there is a necessary job that needs to be filled it will take some creativity.”
From an environmental standpoint, the natural resources, including the forests, rivers, mountains, and plant and wildlife might also suffer under the hiring freeze, Gerlach said.
Most federal agencies charged with protecting the natural environment have outposts in WNC, one of the most biodiverse areas in the country.
“Just by virtue of being very biodiverse, it’s an area that has a tremendous amount of government influence by necessity,” he said.
The stated objective of the hiring freeze is to ensure taxpayers get effective and efficient government to counter expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.
However, statistics from the OPM show that the number of executive branch employees hasn’t been as low as it is now since 1965, and that the number of employees has remained steady in the last 15 years.
According to OPM, the federal government hired 221,000 workers in fiscal 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.
The number excludes uniformed military personnel. But roughly a third of those hired were military veterans, who enjoy hiring preferences in the federal government.
“When you look at reigning in federal spending, the immediate action is to look to the workforce, but there are other areas that can be looked at,” Gerlach said. “That pay raises are not frozen sounds curious.”
The hiring freeze will put a crimp in the seasonal work force for natural resource agencies, but might also set back the critical work of the federal government to employ often overlooked members of society, said Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a federal labor union based in Washington, D.C.
The order will delay the hiring of women, minorities, veterans and the disabled, Lenkart said.
“People from these groups are missing a ton of employment opportunities. It’s going to set everything back for many, many months after the hiring freeze expires,” he said. “When you freeze hiring, reinstating hiring isn’t as simple as hitting a switch. It could mean six to eight months.”
Lenkart said federal employment amounts to 2 percent of nation’s workforce. A hiring freeze, he said, would have a negative impact on national employment numbers.
“The hiring freeze is unnecessary and history has dictated and government audits show that hiring freezes actually cost taxpayers more because of the process of rehiring again,” Lenkart said.
“It’s a waste of money and hurts the work force. It’s nothing but political peacocking to show that there’s a new sheriff in town.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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