Biden has his hands full rebuilding a demoralized federal workforce

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Mar 8, 2021
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President Joe Biden tried to shore up federal employees’ morale even before his inauguration. He has substantial restaffing to do, but many former appointees are willing to serve again. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Biden has his hands full rebuilding a demoralized federal workforce

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Mar 8, 2021
Heard on:
President Joe Biden tried to shore up federal employees’ morale even before his inauguration. He has substantial restaffing to do, but many former appointees are willing to serve again. Samuel Corum/Getty Images
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The Biden administration has about 40 nominees for high-level positions moving through Congress right now. That’s out of roughly 1,200 positions that require Senate approval, so it will take a while.

And that’s not all. In total, a president gets to make about 4,000 political appointments to the federal workforce.

They will be joining colleagues who have been through a lot in the last four years, including government shutdowns, wage freezes and a rocky transition of power.

President Joe Biden tried to shore up federal employees’ morale even before his inauguration, sending a video to the federal workforce in early January.

In it, he told employees: “And I know this transition was a little more challenging than usual, to say the least.” Biden added with a chuckle, “I commend you for your professionalism, your honor, your integrity.”

Parts of the workforce Biden inherited from former President Donald Trump were decimated. Max Stier, president and CEO of the good-government group Partnership for Public Service, has been keeping track of the brain drain.

“In 2019, there were many agencies that had seen upwards of 12% of their workforce go away,” he explained.

According to Partnership data, during the Trump administration, the full-time workforce in the Office of Personnel Management — basically the government’s human resources department — contracted almost 55%. The Labor Department was down almost 12%.

Then there’s the Agriculture Department. Stier said, “The research organizations at the Department of Agriculture were moved with a terrible process to the Midwest, and upwards of three-quarters of the employees didn’t go.”

Andrew Crane-Droesch was an economist at one of the two research arms ordered to relocate to Missouri. He refused and quit. He was working on climate change models at the Agriculture Department.

Crane-Droesch said that’s exactly the kind of analysis the Biden administration will need to implement its sweeping plans to combat global warming.

“Without in-house experts, you’re left asking industry, and industry is certainly going to give you an answer that’s going to benefit industry,” Crane-Droesch warned.

The Biden administration’s plans to monitor industrial workplaces are also affected by gaping personnel holes.

Biden issued an executive order the day after he was inaugurated requiring employers to protect their workers from COVID-19. But OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — doesn’t have enough workplace inspectors to enforce it.

Chris Lu is a former deputy labor secretary in the Obama administration who helped with the Biden transition. He said the Trump administration was slow to replace inspectors who quit, leaving OSHA with the lowest number since the 1970s.

“As people left, jobs weren’t backfilled. So, you know, the lack of inspectors makes it hard to get people out to the places they need to be,” Lu explained.

And there are other problems. Lu said there’s also a lack of top diplomats at the State Department to repair relations overseas. Vacancies at the Department of Health and Human Services will complicate Biden’s plans to shore up the Affordable Care Act.

“Personnel is policy,” said Christina Kinane, who teaches political science at Yale. She said the new administration will have to scale up staffing to reach its policy goals.

But, Kinane said, Biden does have one big advantage over other incoming presidents: a huge pool of people who are ready to go. “He is uniquely positioned to have a set of appointees who served in the Obama administration just four years ago,” she said.

Another way to staff up? Allow federal employees to work from home permanently. Crane-Droesch, the economist who left the Agriculture Department, said he has no plans to go back. But the chance to work remotely would be a great recruiting perk.

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