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Freeze won’t hurt Corps’ missions

The 90-day federal hiring freeze enacted in January by the Trump Administration has caused officials with some federal agencies to be concerned about the ability of those agencies to do their jobs, but officials with two divisions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here say the freeze may have initially slowed their efforts, but it will not affect their missions.

“It’s hard to gauge the effect in the short term,” said Mike Petersen, spokesman for the Corps’ Engineering Research and Development Center. “We make do. We are part of the Army, and one of the things the Army does really well is make do with what we have and still get the mission done. And that’s what we’re staying focused on. Nothing curtailed or shut down.”

“It created a lot of confusion and frustration because we’ve been slowed down,” said Maj. Jeff Schultz, deputy commander for the Vicksburg District, “But ultimately we think the fix is in the works; we’re going to be back on track real shortly.”

President Trump on Jan. 22 issued an executive order freezing hiring for 90 days to allow the director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the director of the Office of Personnel Management to recommend a long-term plan to reduce the federal government’s workforce through attrition.

The freeze, according to the order, will end when the plan is implemented, possibly sometime in April.

The order exempts the military and positions involving public safety or national security. There are also provisions that allow hiring part-time and seasonal workers, Schultz said.

For the Vicksburg District, that means it can hire the extra rangers to handle tourist season at its lakes in Mississippi and Arkansas and sites in Louisiana, and workers for the mat-sinking unit, which annually goes out on the Mississippi River for bank stabilization projects.

“The executive order that started the hiring freeze recognized that some federal agencies are going to have this seasonal demand they are going to have to fill, and that fits right into the executive order, ‘We’re going to allow you a process to easily get approval to bring on your seasonal people,’ and we’ve already got that,” Schultz said.

“We’ve got approval to hire our rangers for the summer, we’ve got approval to hire our river workers and maintenance workers for the mat sinking unit. That’s all done and we’re ready to move out again.”

Hiring full-time employees like engineers, hydrologists, scientists and other workers used by ERDC and the District require Army approval.

“The Secretary of the Army would approve any of those hires,” Petersen said. “The Corps of Engineers here and at our headquarters in Washington (D.C.) are in constant contact with the Army leadership so that we are making sure we can continue our work and the important work that’s in support of the nation and the Army.

“Any position would have to meet the requirements based on the memorandum — every position.”

“What we’ve had to is, we’ve had to ask for a specific exemption request to get approval to hire those folks, and what the administration has laid out for us is that the only people that they’re going to grant exemptions for us to hire ones that directly support public safety and national security,” Schultz said.

“When we make our case, we have to be able to say this person is critical to public safety or national security.”

And for the District, he said, justifying a hire as critical to either exemption is not difficult, “Because everything we do is either involved with public safety or national security.”

The exemption applications, he said, are submitted to Corps Headquarters in Washington and forwarded to the Secretary of the Army.

“What they do in his office is make sure that our exemption has a supportable case that ties it back to safety or security,” he said. “Once they’re satisfied, they approve our exemption request and that allows us to hire the folks we want to bring on.”

And the freeze, Schultz and Petersen said, has left a number of potential employees waiting.

“There are a lot of hiring actions that are still sitting on manger’s desks because they are aware of the hiring freeze and they don’t need to be throwing paperwork into the wind,” Petersen said. “I guarantee there are positions that are waiting.”

Schultz said a number of vacancies at the District advertised through “USA Jobs,” the federal government’s online job listing service, were instantly put on hold with the freeze.

He said there are other potential employees awaiting final approval from the Army, adding, “We think those people are going to get approved and cleared out in the next week or two.”

“As far as the functions of the District, we’re still carrying out our mission and expect to have our mat sinking season go as planned.”

 

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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