Government & Politics

Questions, concerns about Trump transition abound among federal workers in KC area

Many federal workers in the Kansas City area, some of whom work in the Bolling Federal Building in Kansas City, have questions about some orders by the Trump administration.
Many federal workers in the Kansas City area, some of whom work in the Bolling Federal Building in Kansas City, have questions about some orders by the Trump administration. File photo by The Star

In past presidential transitions, the Postal Service wasn’t included in executive orders to freeze hiring or freeze salaries. Does it fall under new directives from the Trump administration?

“We’re reaching out to the administration to clarify that,” said Stacy St. John, spokeswoman for the Kansas City-area Postal Service. “Meanwhile, we’re continuing to hire. There hasn’t been a moratorium as far as we know now.”

St. John, at least, was confident that she could talk to the press. Other media contacts for some of the 150-plus federal agencies in the Kansas City area are forwarding press calls to Washington, D.C., headquarters or begging off replies.

“No word has come down to us,” said one agency spokesman who said he couldn’t speak on the record. “What’s next? No one knows.”

For about 13,000 civilian employees in the area’s federal agencies, the “What next?” question looms large, as it does for the government’s 1.4 million nonmilitary employees nationally. Most aren’t yet sure what policies will guide their agencies or how big the changes will be.

Others are more sanguine. They’ve been through political upheavals before.

“In general, it’s just wait and see,” said Rex Jennings, who works at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Every administration is different. We have no idea how it will affect us.”

After President Donald Trump on Monday announced a federal government hiring freeze for all but “military, public safety and public health,” concerns grew in some agencies.

Trump’s directive also prohibited using contract workers to get around the hiring freeze. That’s important because federal contract employment swells the workforce well above the Kansas City area’s 13,000 directly employed civilians.

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, warned that a hiring freeze will mean “longer lines at Social Security offices, fewer workplace safety inspections, less oversight of environmental polluters, and greater risk to our nation’s food supply and clean water systems.”

Those fears were exacerbated after the new administration was reported to have placed a gag order on employees at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. News sources reported that other agencies were instructed to shut down their Twitter feeds or Facebook posts until further notice.

“It’s not a very positive time,” said Shannon McPeek-McDuff, president of AFGE Local 1336, representing about 1,800 federal workers in the Kansas City area’s Social Security Administration offices. “People are fearful because you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day or even overnight.”

Most federal employees, unless they’re in top union positions, shy away from public comment that could be construed as political, citing the Hatch Act. The 1939 law prohibits federal employees from certain federal activities. Whether or not it actually bans them from stating personal opinions, most opt for playing it safe.

Larry Hisle, executive director of the Federal Executive Board in Kansas City — a group of federal agency leaders that fosters inter-agency training and communication — urged perspective.

“There’s apprehension, as there is in any transition,” Hisle said. “We’ve had freezes before. And some agencies will always rise and fall in employment depending on an administration’s priorities.”

Hisle also said gag orders haven’t been unusual in past transitions.

“It’s fairly standard to wait for leadership changes or to require questions go through Washington until new political appointees are in place,” Hisle said.

He said reports are expected within 90 days from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management that should clarify specific plans for federal workforce reductions or, possibly, even maintenance of existing levels.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford