Exemption for hiring freeze at Pearl shipyard sought
The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, one of the state’s largest employers, hopes to hire more than 500 workers this year, including dozens of mechanics, engineers, IT specialists, administration personnel and laborers.
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The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, one of the state’s largest employers, hopes to hire more than 500 workers this year, including dozens of mechanics, engineers, IT specialists, administration personnel and laborers. But those jobs have been in limbo since President Donald Trump signed an executive order Jan. 23 freezing government hiring.
The hiring freeze has also hampered hiring at Hawaii’s Department of Veterans Affairs offices, though the VA secretary has said the agency will continue to fill positions it deems critical.
The government hiring freeze has sparked criticism from Hawaii’s two U.S. senators, who have urged the Trump administration to exempt the naval shipyard and VA.
The president of the Hawaii Federal Employees Metal Trades Council, which represents shipyard workers, is also warning the freeze at the shipyard could harm national security.
“As you know, there is a lot of activity going on in China right now, so it makes us strategically important,” said Jeff Philipp, president of the union. “We want to keep all of our ships fit and ready to fight, and part of that is to get them out on time, to get them repaired and out to sea to support their mission.”
He said the hiring freeze also halts internal promotions within the current workforce and hampers temporary workers from moving into permanent positions.
Last week Hawaii’s U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono joined a bipartisan group of six other senators in asking Secretary of Defense James Mattis to exempt civilian employees of Department of Navy shipyards from the hiring freeze.
Trump’s freeze excluded military personnel and positions essential for national security, but the vagueness of what qualifies as important to national security has caused confusion.
“We believe a hiring freeze may have a severe and adverse impact on the ability of the Navy and public shipyards to meet critical national security requirements and we urge you to immediately exempt all Department of Navy shipyard civilian employees,” according to the letter sent to Mattis.
Exempting civilian employees at Navy shipyards isn’t without precedent, according to the senators. In 2013 former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel exempted the workers from sequestration-related furloughs because it would be difficult to make up for delays in maintenance work on nuclear vessels.
“Our public shipyards perform the same mission- critical work today and require hiring discretion to meet their workforce needs so this work can be completed without delay,” the senators wrote.
The letter also notes that the Navy has recommended increasing its fleet to 355 ships from 280 and that hiring is needed to ensure the training pipeline of workers needed for ship maintenance.
Hirono’s office said Monday the senator had not received a response from the Trump administration.
In the meantime, Christian Hodge, spokesman for the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, said the shipyard is continuing recruitment activities while at the same time complying with the hiring freeze. Hodge said the shipyard is “still evaluating” how the freeze might affect the shipyard and security issues, and directed further questions to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Trump’s memorandum also applies to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has triggered an outcry from members of Congress, including 55 senators and House members who signed a letter asking Trump to exempt the VA.
“A hiring freeze at the VA will delay veterans’ access to health care and resolution of their disability claims, which for many of our nation’s heroes provides a sole source of income to them and their families,” the members of Congress wrote. “Our nation’s veterans should not be made to sacrifice any more than they already have while you review federal hiring.”
Both Schatz and Hirono signed the letter, which also asks that Trump exempt from the hiring freeze all veterans who are seeking federal jobs.
The VA has reported it has more than 45,000 vacancies nationwide.
Amy Rohlfs, public affairs officer for the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, was unable to say Monday how many jobs would be affected in Hawaii, but many positions were exempted from the freeze by VA Acting Secretary Robert Snyder.
A Friday memo from Snyder listed nearly 80 VA positions in medical centers, outpatient clinics and counseling centers that are exempt from the hiring freeze. Those jobs range from chiropractor, medical officer, nurse and social worker to security guard, police officer and housekeeping aid.
The letter from members of Congress protesting the hiring freeze questioned whether Trump had considered the impact it will have on veterans who are awaiting the outcomes of more than 450,000 appeals filed for disability compensation.
“Our nation’s veterans cannot afford an unnecessary wait to receive the benefits they have earned serving our country,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge you to re-evaluate this hiring freeze and take into account the effect it will have on veterans who will have to wait longer for earned benefits — whether it’s disability, survivor or education benefits, or whether it’s vocational rehabilitation or job training services.”
The letter also warned the freeze will add to chronic workforce shortages in the VA at a time when more staffing is needed to reduce wait times for veterans.
“Mr. President, this hiring freeze will have a dramatic impact on the quality of health care and benefits veterans receive,” they wrote. “We urge you to reconsider.”