Federal hiring freeze could affect hundreds of jobs in New Mexico

January 25, 2017 GMT

More than 300 advertised federal jobs, many of them high-paying professional positions, are at risk in New Mexico as a result of a governmentwide hiring freeze announced by President Donald Trump.

Trump’s action, announced Monday, could mean another blow for a state where job growth has been anemic since the end of the Great Recession and where the unemployment rate is the nation’s second worst. A University of New Mexico economist said the damage to the state’s economy would likely be minimal. But Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Trump’s action could have an immediate impact on the state, including in the areas of American Indian health care, rural development and law enforcement.

He added that it is unlikely the nation’s nuclear weapons modernization program, in which Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories play major roles, will be able to move forward during the hiring freeze.

“Presidents Reagan and Carter tried hiring freezes and learned that overall they hurt the American people and cost the taxpayers more money. And it doesn’t seem like President Trump has thought this through anywhere near as far as they did,” he said in an email.

Udall called the freeze a “reckless, blunt decree.”

Trump ordered in a memorandum that no vacancies in the executive branch be filed or new positions created, with the exclusion of military personnel hiring. A department may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions “that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.”

The hiring freeze, effective immediately, is part of a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government, according to a statement from the White House.

Agency officials and employee unions said the implications of the order — and which jobs in New Mexico might be exempt from the hiring freeze — remain largely unclear. But some said the freeze contradicts the promises of the new administration to expand energy, nuclear weapons and border protection programs in New Mexico and nationally.

“This is just another mixed signal coming from the White House,” said Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor.

“You can’t expect to do everything he is expecting us to accomplish on a national basis and not give us resources to do it. There is no logic to that,” said Hendry, who listed Trump’s proposals to increase the United States’ nuclear arsenal, open up oil and gas development and build a wall on the border between Mexico.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said in an email that the hiring freeze would help the administration “assess the strengths and weaknesses within the federal force.”

He said he looks forward to working with the administration to “ensure the vital Federal roles in New Mexico stay filled, and new positions are added where needed.”

Keeley Christensen, a spokeswoman for the congressman, added that many of the vacancies listed in New Mexico appear to fall within the criteria of “national security” and “public safety.”

As of Tuesday, there were 317 federal jobs in New Mexico advertised on the website usajobs.gov. The Department of Health and Human Services had the most advertised positions, followed by the Department of Defense, the Air Force and the Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management. The defense and Air Force jobs are civilian positions.

Many of the advertised jobs are high-paying medical positions in rural parts of the state, including positions for general physicians, surgeons, obstetrician/gynecologists, psychologists and emergency physicians for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Veterans Affairs. A number of vacancies for nurses would also go unfilled without an exemption.

The state already has a shortage of physicians in rural areas, according to studies.

Other advertised vacancies include jobs for engineers and physicists at the U.S. Energy Department at Los Alamos National Laboratory and firefighters for the Forest Service.

A spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has said it will hire 2,425 people in the next four years, said most positions at the lab are not federal workers but instead are employees of Los Alamos National Security, which operates the lab under a contract with the Department of Energy.

Babete Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., said the agency is awaiting clarification and direction from the Office of Personnel Management on the impact of the hiring freeze on the Forest Service.

“At this point, we are not speculating,” she said.

However, Anderson said the agency hires as many as 15,000 seasonal employees nationally each spring, roughly 70 percent of those to manage and fight wildfires.

A survey by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that, prior to the freeze, federal agencies in Western states were too short-staffed to handle the demands of Trump’s energy development plans for public lands or to maintain conservation efforts. The survey said Bureau of Land Management employees are struggling to keep up with land-permitting demands, which would increase if Trump expands natural resource extraction on BLM land.

“This freeze means that the thin green line protecting America’s natural resources will get thinner and, in some places, it will snap,” Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement.

“Public servants are left to struggle with this question: How can American be great if its government is not?” Ruch asked

Jeffrey Mitchell, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at The University of New Mexico, said the impact of the freeze ultimately could be minimal in New Mexico.

New Mexico is among the states most reliant on federal spending. Federal employees make up close to 4 percent of all jobs statewide, but the number of federal jobs has dropped significantly in recent years.

Because of this decline, the freeze probably will not have much of an impact on the state, Mitchell said.

He said most of New Mexico’s federal dollars come in through social programs, like Medicaid and Social Security, and through procurement for Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.