While hundreds of thousands of federal workers brace for unpaid furloughs starting next month, Uncle Sam is still looking to hire.
In one week alone this month, nearly 2,200 job listings available to the public were posted on USAJobs.gov, the federal government's recruiting site. Add in new postings open only to current or former federal workers, including those laid off, and the number of new openings jumps to more than 4,600.
"One thing for sure about hiring freezes: They always begin to melt as soon as they are put into place," said Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy at College Park. "Does anyone want to land at a major airport that doesn't have an air traffic controller?"
The Office of Management and Budget advised agencies late last month to increase their scrutiny of new hiring in light of a possible sequester — $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts from March to the end of September. Now that the sequester appears here to stay, some agencies plan to furlough workers one day a week starting next month. That's the equivalent of a 20 percent pay cut over the half year.
Critics say the posting of thousands of new jobs this month is proof that agencies have ignored the OMB and continue with unnecessary spending. But some employment experts say it's not that simple, and agencies have valid reasons to post jobs that may — or may not — be filled.
One critic is Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, who launched a crusade against what he sees as nonessential hiring during the sequester. Coburn compiled a list of recent job openings that were posted during the sequester or in the days leading up to it.
Among them: a counsel for the Morris K. Udall Scholarship Foundation with a salary up to $155,000; a director for the Air Force History and Museums Policies and Programs with pay up to $165,300; law librarians at the Justice Department with salaries reaching $115,742; a Department of Labor assistant to answer phones at a top salary of $81,204; four public affairs specialists with salaries of up to $116,000; as well as several positions for painters for the Air Force and 23 recreation aides.
"I have no question that some of these can be helpful," Coburn told his colleagues this month. "But they are not necessary at this time until we get past this pothole in the road."
He added that if the Federal Aviation Administration postponed hiring four community planners and assistants, the savings could spare 1,000 air traffic controllers from furlough.
But for every opening for an assistant or recreational aide, there are dozens of others listed that many taxpayers might deem worthwhile.
The Veterans Administration wants to hire doctors and nurses for its medical centers. The Department of Homeland Security seeks cybersecurity specialists just as allegations surface that China has been hacking into U.S. computers. And the Department of the Army posted openings for sexual-assault coordinators and victim advocates as service members testified before Congress that sexual assaults are epidemic in the military yet routinely ignored by superiors.
And job postings do not necessarily mean hires, said Thomas Richards, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management.
"Oftentimes, agencies will post a job announcement to solicit candidates to get a better understanding of the skill sets out there or they have continuous job announcements posted for hard-to-fill positions," Richards said in a statement. "It could be helpful to post a job and solicit candidates so when the budget situation allows, they are prepared to hire."
Most agencies will be operating under a hiring freeze, said Joseph Flynn, national vice president with the American Federation of Government Employees in Ellicott City.
"They may have some flexibility if it's a position critical to their mission," said Flynn, whose union represents Marylanders working at the Social Security Administration, the Transportation Security Administration, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and other federal agencies.
"A lot of it is replacement hiring," said Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, an online community network for public-sector employees.
Older federal workers have seen their investment accounts rebound with the stock market recovery and, facing a third year without a pay raise, figured it's a good time to retire, he said.
In the first two months of this year, 42,561 federal employees retired, a 53 percent increase over that time a year ago, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Not all of those retirees will be replaced, but some need to be for the agencies to continue functioning, Ressler said.
And, he noted, it's not as simple as shifting furloughed workers into vacant positions.
"Every person can't do every person's job," he said. "There is a big difference between a TSA screener and a procurement person."
Still, hiring while others face unpaid furloughs might seem a contradiction.
"We don't think agencies should be hiring if they are furloughing employees," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Internal Revenue Service workers, among others.
As many as 80,000 IRS employees face furloughs of five to seven days once the tax season is over, Kelley said. And this is after the agency spent the past year and a half tightening its belt by filling only one out of four vacancies, she said. Still, the IRS has new job openings listed.
Some accuse the Obama administration of inflating the negative consequences of the sequester.
"I would have expected a keener political tuning fork as to how posting a bunch of job openings the day they raised fears about massive furloughs would look to the public," said Rick Manning, vice president of public policy and communications for Americans for Limited Government. "This is not about government slowing down or becoming smaller. This is about the Obama administration trying to make budget cuts politically untenable in the future and nothing else."
This month, Coburn sponsored an amendment to a funding bill that would have frozen hiring for any "nonessential" workers during sequestration.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, opposed the amendment, saying it could force agencies to hire contractors to do the government's work at a higher cost to taxpayers.
Coburn isn't opposed to sparing some workers from furlough whose jobs arguably are nonessential. He proposed shifting $6 million in funds for visitor services at the White House, the Grand Canyon and other national parks. This, too, didn't make it through the Senate.
Kettl said that while Washington debates the number of federal civilian employees, in reality, they account for about one-twelfth of federal spending. "Most federal spending is in entitlements and defense," he said.
Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said federal agencies aren't hiring for the most part and that he's not worried about new employees.
"That's not the type of thing that keeps me up at night," Goldwein said. "What keeps me up is, they haven't done anything seriously to growing entitlement programs that ultimately will bankrupt the U.S. government."
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