The week following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States has been one fraught with chaos and controversy. Amidst blocking federal funding for any global health organisations that provide abortion, withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, resurrecting the widely-protested Dakota and Keystone pipelines as well as enforcing refugee and immigration policies that have been vastly condemned as racist, Donald Trump has announced a hiring freeze throughout the federal government.
Described by the Washington Post as “red meat to his base” who wish to see the powers of the federal government limited, the memorandum that Trump signed on the 22nd of this month has barred the filling of vacant positions in the federal government or creation of new positions (“except in limited circumstances”). Perhaps somewhat overshadowed in the media by more divisive policy changes, the freezing of new employment in the federal government is a move that has challenging ramifications for millions of Americans and, in particular, the consequences for the 21.8 million veterans currently residing in the United States must be considered judiciously.
The announcement that Trump would seek to limit numbers of federal government employees should come as no surprise to those that were listening to his campaign trail – ultimately he is fulfilling one of his key promises. However, the pretences under which this action has been performed are undeniably misleading, with false claims that the employee base has been expanding markedly in recent years. White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated that the freeze “counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years”, which is patently untrue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employee base of the federal government increased 3% from May of 2014 to December of 2016 – in contrast the civilian workforce (not including federal government employees) increased 4.9% over that same period. In terms of overall percentage in the total American workforce, the federal workforce is also smaller than it has been in over 70 years.
“Alternative facts” aside, this move is highly problematic for veterans for several reasons. After the signing of the executive order, Sean Spicer pointed to the Department of Veterans Affairs as a prime example of unnecessary employment and wastefulness of tax payer dollars that the White House was attempting to curb, “the V.A. in particular, if you look at the problems that plague people, hiring more people isn’t the answer”. This announcement comes a mere 3 years after a V.A. internal audit that exposed tens of thousands of veterans home from war had to wait 90 days or more for medical assistance, and the launch of a FBI criminal investigation following at least 23 deaths that were chalked up to delayed availability of care. In 2017 the V.A. is still buried under the weight of demand and shortage of medical care providers – the latest data shows that over 300,000 veterans are still waiting more than a month for an appointment.
Whilst the V.A. is one of the largest agencies in the federal government (with over 350,000 employees), they also provide care for over 9 million veterans a year with death, disability and education benefits. There are 4,308 positions currently listed as available in the V.A., 1,100 of which are for physicians, 1,185 for nurses and approximately 285 are positions that form direct relationships with veterans to help them to access benefits – the lack of which will be felt profoundly by a department already struggling to attend to some of America’s most vulnerable. Senior advisor of Votevets (a non-partisan political action committee) Peter Kauffman has stated that if the freeze applies to the V.A., it would represent the “ultimate insult to our men and women who serve to deny them the additional doctors, nurses, therapists, and administrators that are sorely needed at the V.A.” and that “If his order leads to preventable deaths, that will be on Donald Trump’s hands, and we will hold him personally accountable”.
The federal government freeze not only has direct consequences for the medical attention available to veterans, it also has a severe impact on their employment opportunities. With veterans receiving a strong hiring preference for federal jobs, they account for a vast portion of the federal government’s employees, with 71,800 veterans (including 31,600 disabled veterans) employed in 2015 alone, veterans represent approximately 31% of all federal government employees. Depriving veterans of these opportunities at a time when their unemployment rate is already a percentage point higher than the national average (5.7% as opposed to 4.7%) will only place them at a steeper disadvantage. This will not only be felt in Washington D.C. but sorely across the nation.
Notably, this federal government hiring freeze has a distinct lack of historical successes to support its claim – with study from The Government Accountability Office stating in 1982 that hiring freezes merely “provided an illusion of control on federal employment and spending”. In other words, Trump is employing a tactic disproved over 30 years ago as well as ignoring and alienating a population that were crucial in securing his victory over Hillary Clinton. It appears that with this move, Donald Trump has demonstrated he may ultimately fail in his promise to “take care of our vets better than anybody”, and all within the first week of his presidency.