On Jan. 23, in accordance with his promises to shrink the size of the government through attrition, President Donald Trump announced a federal hiring freeze. This is red meat to his base, which has fervently argued that limited government is better, more effective government. This administration may be the first to deliver so literally on that idea, with some potential Cabinet appointees having a history of being publicly opposed to the mission of the agencies they have been selected to run, and now this across-the-board halt to all new and existing government jobs, exempting only national security, public safety and the military.
Never mind that federal employment is at record lows. Never mind that the last two times a president froze government hiring, it actually ended up costing more money. When I heard of the plan to freeze federal hiring, however, all I could think about was how bad this decision will be for veterans.
I’m a veteran and a former government employee. I’ve worked at several federal agencies, most recently at the Veterans Benefits Administration, the nonmedical side of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before my time as a government employee, I bought into the idea that the problem with government work was people who didn’t want to work hard, but outside of military service, the hardest I have ever worked was at the VA. Mandatory overtime, production quotas, hours and hours of continuing education — and all for less money than I made as a secretary working in the private sector.
My memories are of halls filled with racks of folders and less than 200 co-workers to process hundreds of thousands of claims. There simply weren’t enough new workers coming in to replace those who left for other jobs, illness or retirement. I was one of the people who left early, too, after the stress began giving me optical migraines. I couldn’t stick around for years of the Sisyphean task of processing a never-ending stream of claims without enough staff, and, frankly, I had healthier options.
The argument for small government ignores the real need for enough employees to serve the population. You can’t serve 21.8 million veterans with 340,000 employees and expect anything but long wait times and subpar access to care; you can’t starve an agency of resources for decades and not expect significant problems. No agency should better understand what is at stake here: After devastating investigative reports, a 2014 VA internal audit showed that tens of thousands of veterans home from war had to wait at least 90 days for medical care. The VA acknowledged 23 deaths due to delayed care, and in 2014, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the agency.
Yet as recently as 2015, some VA hospitals were facing staffing shortages that left as many as half of the critical positions open. Currently, 4,308 jobs are listed as open at the VA. More than 1,100 of those listings are for physicians; 1,185 are for nurses at various levels — from licensed practical nurses to nurse practitioners. Another 284 are for positions that have direct contact with veterans to help them access benefits. Shrink that number of employees any further, and the two-year backlog that is just now being conquered may return.
And veterans won’t just lose out on decent services thanks to this hiring freeze; they’ll also lose out on jobs. About one-third of civilian federal employees are veterans, thanks in part to the preference given to qualified veterans in government hiring, and out-of-work veterans will be hit particularly hard by this measure.
The VA isn’t the only agency that will be hit by this freeze. Many agencies that directly work with vulnerable populations, including the Social Security Administration, are also woefully understaffed. Despite false claims that the government workforce has undergone a dramatic expansion, the federal workforce is incredibly small relative to the expanding U.S. population. If 2.7 million employees sounds like a lot, remember that the population was just shy of 319 million people in 2014. Our current federal government staffing levels are akin to going to the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving and finding two registers open. That’s why it takes so long for benefits claims to be processed, why getting a passport can take months, why Internal Revenue Service refunds are being delayed until mid-February, because budget cuts were already limiting staff replacement. Despite the ongoing narrative of “lazy/greedy government workers,” the reality is that any industry doesn’t function well if it doesn’t have enough people.
My time as a veteran’s services representative was mercifully brief. It would be nice to pretend that I was such a force for good during that year that the VA was drastically changed for the better by my presence. Maybe I made a difference in some small, mundane interpersonal ways, but my time was marked by an immense workload and stress so obscene that I can’t lie to myself. Meanwhile, the mantra of smaller government won’t save taxpayers any money, it won’t make life any easier or improve access to services. All it will do is make life harder for federal employees and for the populations they serve, including veterans, whose very lives depend on functional government. It’s not smaller government that America needs right now. It’s an effective, compassionate one.
Mikki Kendall is a writer based in Chicago. This piece was originally published in The Washington Post.