The Office of Personnel Management is telling agencies how to prepare for an upcoming government reorganization.
Agency heads are receiving new guidelines for workforce reshaping, as well as an update to OPM’s guidance for issuing and implementing administrative furloughs.
“OPM is issuing this Workforce Reshaping Operations Handbook to provide assistance to agencies that are considering and/or undergoing some type of reshaping (e.g., reorganization, management directed reassignments, furlough, transfer of function, reduction in force),” the reshaping guide said.
This comes a few weeks after President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking that agencies analyze their components, offices, programs and efforts in preparation for a major reorganization.
And it comes after Trump indicated in his 2018 budget blueprint that the reorganization, the current temporary hiring freeze and the Office of Management and Budget’s forthcoming plan to cut the workforce through attrition are “complementary” and go hand in hand.
If the President gets his way in the upcoming budget cycle, many civilian agencies will face significant spending cuts in fiscal 2018, which will ultimately drive workforce reductions.
The workforce reshaping guide, which Federal News Radio obtained, describes in great detail how agency leaders should “develop, review, analyze and prioritize mission requirements.”
The handbook is designed to help agency heads and human resources offices with options and specific procedures “to ensure that reshaping efforts comply with merit system laws and regulations,” OPM said.
OPM asks agency heads to consider the timing and scope of reorganization efforts, in addition to their communication capabilities and labor-management relationships.
“Does management need to reduce whole numbers as in ‘across the board cuts,’ or is there the possibility of reshaping specific functions within the organization? There is typically less disruption to an organization when specific functions are reshaped than when entire operations are closed,” OPM wrote.
Agencies so far have few answers to these questions. The President’s budget proposal is merely a request, and agencies should have an opportunity to defend their mission needs both before OMB as it considers government reorganization and before congressional appropriations committees in preparing for the 2018 budget.
The budget blueprint, which the White House released last week, makes no mention of specific reductions in force, furloughs or job cuts.
But the details included in OPM’s guides reinforce why agencies need to begin planning now for any workforce cuts they may need to make in the future, said Jeff Neal, senior vice president for ICF and a former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department.
“There is simply not enough time to get ready for a [reduction-in-force] if they wait until a budget is passed,” he said. “Agencies that begin to plan for RIF now, even without firm budget numbers, are not abandoning their employees. Quite the opposite is true: They are ensuring any RIF they may have … protects the rights of all of their employees.”
OPM also offers several alternatives to RIFs. It suggests that agencies consider detailing employees to other departments on a reimbursable basis, using furloughs and reassigning employees in “surplus functions” to other positions.
It also suggests cutting employee hours, asking employees to change to a lower grade on the General Schedule or using voluntary early retirement authorities.
If agencies do implement RIFs, they should work closely with the human resources office to set up a “RIF team,” OPM said.
In addition, OPM updated a second guide on administrative furloughs. It describes which types of employees are exempt from furloughs and under what circumstances. It also details a variety of employee scenarios and how agencies should approach the pay issue during furloughs.
Agencies last collectively experienced furloughs back in October 2013 when the government shut down for 16 days. Federal employees eventually received back pay for the time they were forced not to work. Some agencies also furloughed employees before that time due to sequester-related budget cuts.
Nicole Ogrysko is a workforce reporter for FederalNewsRadio.com focusing on federal workforce, personnel, veterans’ and homeland security issues. Follow @nogryskoWFED/
prooting employees for reassignments to other cities is common at some agencies and rare at others. Agencies are more likely to relocate supervisors and managers to other positions than they are rank-and-file employees. Frequently, employees who want to rise in an organization or move to a more desirable city request reassignments. But some regard reassignment-whether it's expected or a bolt from the blue-as an agency's act of malevolence. If so, what options does an employee have?
The sad truth is that a reassignment without reduction in grade or pay is largely unappealable. The Merit Systems Protection Board is a creature of statute and can only exercise jurisdiction where Congress has specifically authorized it to do so. In disciplinary matters, the MSPB has the authority to hear appeals of agency decisions to remove or demote employees or to suspend them for more than 14 days. Thus, a suspension of 14 days or less, an official letter of reprimand, or a reassignment in grade cannot ordinarily be appealed, and the agency's decision is final.
"[We do] not have jurisdiction over an employee's allegation of an improperly motivated reassignment," the MSPB bluntly stated in one case. This leaves the reassigned employee with Hobson's choice. The employee can appeal the reassignment through the agency's administrative or negotiated grievance process to the very people who have just ordered his relocation. But this process, not surprisingly, is rarely successful. Also, collective bargaining agreements exclude supervisors and managers from the negotiated grievance process. Or the reassigned employee can get himself fired for refusing the reassignment and thus acquire MSPB appeal rights based on his removal. This route is, of course, usually unpalatable.
Most agencies are smart enough to cast a reassignment in terms that will pass muster with the MSPB as a legitimate action for the good of the service. Years ago, as a middle manager at a federal agency, I received a two-page letter from the deputy administrator. Page 1 sung my praises and recited what a wonderful job I had done in City A. It opined that these skills would be highly useful to the organization in City B. Page 2 consisted of two boxes with an order to check one: "I accept this reassignment" or "I resign." Well done. I went.
If an agency has a mobility policy, the MSPB will hold the agency to it. However, most agencies use wording such as: "If the geographical reassignment would work a hardship on the employee due to personal problems and the reasons are acceptable to management, the employee will not be required to move." The MSPB has held that such an agreement "does not create a binding obligation to accept any excuse."
A few end runs around this dilemma exist, but the course is perilous and often unsuccessful. An employee fired for refusing reassignment can appeal to the MSPB on the grounds that the action was not based on legitimate management reasons. The MSPB thereupon could conclude that the reassignment was not a "valid discretionary management determination," but rather an improper effort to get the employee to resign or retire or that it was arbitrary and capricious (see Cooke v. U.S. Postal Service, 67 M.S.P.R. 401, 1995). A more circuitous route to this same end is to resign or retire and then allege that the agency coerced or forced the employee to quit-an appealable action. This approach is even less successful than appealing a removal, because resignations and retirements are presumed to be voluntary and MSPB judges are inclined to decide they lack jurisdiction.
What are illegitimate reasons for ordering a reassignment? Unfortunately, disruption of family, hardship, inconvenience and subjective dissatisfaction do not pass muster. Even severe and documented health reasons do not make the grade if the agency considers the health issue and decides to reassign the employee anyway. The MSPB has gone so far as to say reversing dismissals for refusing reassignment is rarely, if ever, appropriate.
In one of the few cases where the employee prevailed, the MSPB reversed the dismissal of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who refused to report to his new post. The board said the agent's reassignment from Burlington, Vt., to Newark, N.J., was not "properly ordered for a legitimate management reason."
The MSPB said in its decision that the agency "presented no evidence of claimed deficiencies (that he had an 'elitist attitude,' was stagnating, and had retired in his own mind) in the appellant's conduct or work performance in the Burlington office; it failed to prove that conditions in the Burlington office would be improved by his reassignment." The board determined that "the appellant's evidence was credible and uncontested, and that it rebutted the agency's contentions that the appellant's reassignment was necessary to improve the productivity and efficiency of the Burlington office and to enhance the appellant's career development" (Raybourn v. Justice Department, 38 M.S.P.R. 5323).
Even egregious agency misconduct is unlikely to save an employee. In another case, a Postal Service employee represented a co-worker who had filed a sex and age discrimination complaint against their second-level manager. The manager was so angry with the employee for helping his co-worker that he downgraded his annual performance rating and reassigned him. The employee refused to go and was fired. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his removal, even though the manager had clearly retaliated against him. The court said the employee should have accepted the reassignment and then filed his appeal, stating that the "right to oppose discrimination is not the right to refuse to work on account of discrimination." Instead, he chose the path of insubordination. Always remember the cardinal rule of survival: Obey then grieve.
Another avenue of appeal is in the context of disciplinary reassignment. An appeal is only possible if the agency couples the reassignment with an appealable action, such as a demotion or a suspension of more than 14 days. If an agency suspends an employee for 30 days and reassigns him, the MSPB might find the two actions were bound together as a unified penalty and possibly deem the reassignment too harsh. On the other hand, if the agency imposes a suspension of 14 days or less and reassigns the employee, the MSPB would find it lacks jurisdiction for an appeal. In most of these cases, the agency claims that the reassignment and the demotion or suspension are unrelated. But the MSPB sometimes sees through the ruse.
Two other approaches are possible. If an employee alleges his reassignment is the result of a prohibited personnel action and he can get the Office of Special Counsel to investigate, he may succeed. However, the special counsel usually is uninterested or finds the allegation lacks merit. The sole exception is a complaint of retaliation for whistleblowing. In such a case, the employee can file an "individual right of action appeal" with the MSPB after exhausting the Office of Special Counsel process. Sometimes, employees are successful, but not as often as they might hope.
Last but not least, there is the discrimination route. One often hears the expression: "You can always take it to EEO," but this process is frequently the old snare and delusion. Even if the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determines the agency's action is unjustified, capricious, or even vicious or insane, it cannot right the wrong unless the employee is able to prove that the reassignment was based on race, religion, color, national origin, gender, age or disability-a tough thing to prove.
The ugly truth is that frequently the only options the employee has are to accept the reassignment or quit. The other responses, such as grievances, appeals to the MSPB or complaints to the Office of Special Counsel or the EEOC are often unsuccessful, time-consuming and expensive. The forced reassignment is a perfect paradigm for the axiom: There is no single, overarching way to right wrongs in the government, and many wrongs are simply unrightable.
William N. Rudman is an attorney who specializes in federal employment law. With 26 years of federal service, he retired in 1993 as deputy undersecretary of Defense and director of the Defense Technology Security Administration