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The Federal Hiring Freeze: How Will It Impact Labor Department Workplace Investigations?

Tuesday April 4th 2017

Hiring-FreezeOne of President Trump’s promises during the 2016 campaign was to take immediate action to freeze federal hiring once in office. Trump kept that vow when he signed an executive order on Jan. 23 freezing federal hiring.

The order says the federal workforce reductions will take place through attrition—meaning federal workers will not be fired, but positions will not be filled when an employee retires or leaves his or her job.

Several large federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency, have stated concern about the effect the hiring freeze and potential budget cuts will have on employee morale and workload.

The Labor Department in particular is concerned about the impact the hiring freeze will have on the department’s capacity to investigate alleged workplace wage violations.

Can the Labor Department Do More with Less?

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division is responsible for investigating workplace wage violations. If the WHD has fewer investigators, it impacts the Labor Department’s ability to carry out its mission. Adding to this uncertainty is that President Trump’s nominee for Labor Department secretary, Alex Acosta, and other personnel have yet to be confirmed.

The department has not publicly disclosed how it will implement the president’s hiring freeze, nor has it said how the WHD will be prioritized in the department’s next budget.

The WHD staff is currently comprised of 1,200 non-managerial employees—1,000 of those positions are investigators responsible for looking into alleged minimum wage and overtime pay violations. Because some of those employees are eligible to retire and there is usually attrition during a White House administration transition, there’s potential for a significant drop in the number of investigators.

General consensus among former WHD officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations is that the hiring freeze will negatively impact the department’s ability to carry out its mission if investigators leave and those vacancies aren’t filled.

Looking to Past Administrations for Guidance

According to Labor Department data on the number of WHD investigators by year-end, the number of investigators declined in every year of the Bush administration, from 950 in 2001 to 731 by 2008. The pattern reversed under President Obama, reaching more than 1,000 investigators each year.

Because several members of Trump’s Labor Department transition team worked in the department under Bush, it’s possible they’ll want to restore investigator totals similar to those in the Bush era.

Trump’s 2018 Proposed Budget

President Trump released his budget on March 16, proposing a 21 percent cut in Labor Department funding. The fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint calls for $9.6 billion in discretionary spending at the Labor Department, down from $12.2 billion for the 2017 fiscal year.

Trump’s budget is referred to as a “skinny budget” because it has few details about specific sub-agencies, including the WHD. This may be an indication the White House is waiting for Acosta to be confirmed so he can provide guidance for allocation of Labor Department funds.

While this is a proposed budget and Congress approves the final budget for fiscal year 2018 (beginning Oct. 1), the Trump administration is expected to release its full budget proposal in May, so the numbers could change early. Until then, the Labor Department will continue to work with what it has now but prepare for a sharp reduction in funding.

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