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Exceptions to the federal hiring freeeze

Do you qualify for a federal hiring exemption or promotion?

The federal government is under a hiring freeze instituted in January by President Trump. The freeze applies to all vacant positions in executive branch agencies. It covers most categories of competitive, excepted and Senior Executive Service (SES) positions.

However, there are exceptions and gray areas. What if you were offered a position before the freeze? Are promotions also subject to the freeze? Do you qualify for employment or advancement under one of the specified exemptions?

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Hold that thought. There are numerous exemptions.

The Presidential Memorandum declared an immediate and across-the-board freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees. However, the president's order carved out specific exceptions and left room for agency heads and the Officer of Personnel Management (OPM) to grant necessary exemptions.

The freeze does not apply to military personnel and other federal uniformed personnel. Civilians of the Central Intelligence and National Intelligence agencies are exempted, as well as the U.S. Postal Service. The memorandum gives agencies broad discretion to exempt hires necessary for reasons of "national security and "public safety." This might include immigration, customs and border patrol positions, as well as jobs in cyber-security and anti-terrorism.

The OPM has since clarified other categories of federal workers and federal job candidates who are or may be exempt:

  • Recent hires with assigned start dates through Feb. 22. were allowed.
  • Hirees with start dates after Feb. 22. or no start date will be case-by-case.
  • Federal employees returning from injury leave or military duty can be restored.
  • Positions supporting employees with disabilities (readers, interpreters, personal assistants) are not subject to the freeze.
  • Personnel actions dictated by court order or adjudicated settlements (e.g. MSPB, EEOC) are not affected.
  • Personnel moves to regularize an improper appointment are allowed.
  • Employees on temporary, term or time-limited appointments can be extended under the freeze, and agencies can re-fill vacancies up to Jan. 22 levels.
  • Agencies can hire short-term and temporary workers to meet seasonal needs, if the Office of Management and Budget is notified in advance.
  • Agency heads have leeway to reallocate current employees to meet priorities.
  • Career ladder promotions can continue under the freeze (but competitive promotions cannot).

OPM can authorize additional exemptions on a case-by-case basis. The request must demonstrate a critical need, an urgency or repercussions of not filling the vacancy, and an explanation why the position or services can't be filled through reallocation.

Agencies may not use merit promotion procedures to backfill vacancies. In general, they cannot hire consultants or experts during the hiring freeze, and cannot contract outside the federal government to circumvent the freeze.

The show must go on

The Presidential Memorandum is a temporary precursor to a long-term plan for reducing the federal workforce through attrition. The hiring freeze will expire when the OMB/OPM plan is implemented later this year. Some agencies will shrink, while others will expand.

In the meanwhile, federal agencies can continue to recruit, post vacancies and interview candidates, though they cannot make job offers or contingent job offers until the freeze is ended or "thawed" by the administration.

An attorney who is familar with federal employment law can offer additional guidance or representation if you feel you were wrongly blocked from hiring or advancement due to the hiring freeze.

Source: Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

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