Arbitrary cuts in staff seen as harmful

Federal workers

February 17, 1993|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- In his address to Congress tonight, President Clinton will detail the sacrifices he wants Americans to make for the sake of balancing the budget. But federal agencies already know what is expected.

An executive order signed by the president last week requires staffing cuts in every federal agency and department.

Each entity must eliminate at least 4 percent of its civilian positions over the next three fiscal years, either through attrition or through "early out programs established at the discretion of the department and agency heads," according to the order.

Twenty-five percent of the reductions must be made by the end of fiscal year 1993 and 62.5 percent by the end of fiscal 1994.

Ten percent of the cuts should be made in the Senior Executive Service, GS-14 and GS-15 levels, and equivalent positions.

Federal worker advocates say they support Mr. Clinton's attempts to deal with the deficit, and they understand his decision to take a chunk out of the federal bureaucracy. But requiring the same level of cuts in all agencies, regardless of their personnel situation, might cause as many problems as it solves, they say.

"We're already understaffed," says Al Levy, an official with the American Federation of Government Employees local at the Social Security Administration headquarters outside Baltimore. The SSA work force already has been cut by about 20,000 during the last five to six years, he says.

"The workload is getting bigger, the backlog is growing, and the resources are getting smaller," says Mr. Levy. "I honestly don't know how they're going to do it."

The Department of Health and Human Services is already the least "top heavy" of the civilian agencies, says Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. There is only one Senior Executive Service manager for every 221 HHS employees, compared with ratios of 1-to-44 at the Department of Energy, 1-to-121 at the Department of Labor, and 1-to-133 at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ms. Bonosaro says.

The backlog of benefit cases at SSA is a top concern of the elderly and has been the subject of congressional hearings. Federal employees are willing to make their share of the sacrifice, but they "want to be certain that the responsibilities they do have can be carried out," Ms. Bonosaro says.

Civil servants also want to be part of the process of identifying "the most effective ways of saving," she says. That means evaluating each agency for possible budget cuts, rather than expecting each one to cut the same amount, she says.

Ms. Bonosaro, who says that sharp reductions of high-level personnel could be "management suicide" for some agencies, sent a letter to Mr. Clinton last week requesting that his order be modified in two ways.

Since the objective is to eliminate managers, she wrote, the 10 percent reduction should encompass managers at all levels, as low as GS-5. Not all GS-14s and GS-15s are managers, she added; they may be scientists, attorneys or other specialists.

Second, Ms. Bonosaro suggested that the Office of Management and Budget "be required to review agencies and allocate the reductions during the process in a manner that [preserves] each agency's essential management capability."

Jeannette Abrams, a spokeswoman at AFGE national headquarters, says there are other solutions as well. If Mr. Clinton takes SSA's administrative funding off-budget, "the Social Security Administration will have all the money it needs to serve the American people," she says.

Currently, SSA funding is set by Congress during the annual budget process, and, consequently, is subject to cuts by budget-conscious lawmakers. AFGE, which represents most SSA employees, has been trying for years to move the agency's administrative spending from the purview of Congress.

Mr. Clinton also may decide to look at claims backlogs and authorize the hiring of more personnel, just as he agreed to add food inspectors after a recent outbreak of food poisoning, Ms. Abrams speculates.

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