Federal Employees News Digest

National Weather Service union chief lauds technology, but notes continuing staffing problems at crucial lifesaving agency

Recent violent spring storms in the Midwest—with death and destruction brought on by accompanying tornadoes, sustained high winds and flooding—are spotlighting the National Weather Service and its few thousand dedicated federal employees. Official warnings and evacuations—all informed with data and analysis from the NWS—continue to succeed, for the most part, in protecting the public. But with record-challenging extreme weather has also come death, injury and property destruction. And maintaining and improving the capacities of this crucial agency—to minimize those losses—remains a paramount aim. The NWS is a unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, within the Department of Commerce. NWS has suffered budget constraints and lowered staffing in recent years. This week, Nathan Abse interviews Dan Sobien, a meteorologist and the longtime president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization—the NWS employees’ union, about staffing and other key issues at the agency. Sobien lauds the technology and capability of NWS and its workforce, but he also outlines problems—some intentional, ordered by the White House—in fully staffing the agency, and suggests that gets in the way of better forecasting so badly needed by the public. Sobien also highlights the damage done by last winter’s government shutdown. 

Q&A with Dan Sobien

How many employees are there in the National Weather Service?

There are supposed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 employees at the Weather Service. But instead there are a huge number of vacancies—and that means we’re really closer to 3,500 employees right now.

You have said in media interviews this is a key problem—is there any progress in filling the gap?

Sobien: They [NWS management] started making some progress in hiring and other issues over the last year, let’s say. But with the shutdown, of course they couldn’t make any progress—and so they fell behind again. To their credit, the agency is really, really trying to bring people in. Whether or not they have been able to bring in even as many people who are leaving, it’s hard to say yet. Certainly, they have been losing a lot of talented people. They are in fact hiring talented people—but people without experience, so that’s different.

Over the years, NWS has acquired much-improved technology—something you and other weather experts have applauded—so why are staffing issues so important?

Sobien: It’s still an individual, a person, who is looking at the data—even from improved technology—and making judgements, and putting out the tornado warnings, for example. 

When would you say problems with fully staffing NWS took hold, and why?

Sobien: These problems really started somewhere around a decade ago, as I recall. The agency has since that time had a harder time hiring people, for some reason. To be clear, it has never been clear to me exactly why the problems began. I have thought maybe things got worse after the sequestration issue came up—the automatic spending cuts [in 2012 onward], but I think it really started before that. And there are a lot of factors in this. I really have not been able to figure out why it started.

Okay, so why does the problem continue? For instance, do you chalk up the continuing problem with hiring to this administration’s widely-cited disrespectful tone toward feds?

Sobien: There are a couple parts to this. Yes, there are some issues with the current administration. But there are also issues with some—not all—of those in the current administration’s party, too. The people I’m thinking of turn federal employees into political pawns. And this is really unfair to good people who are just trying to serve the citizens of this country, and make a living.

In the end, why do so many positions remain unfilled?

Sobien: As for why the positions remain unfilled, I can only speak generally as to why this might have happened at NWS—at NOAA. I can say it was mismanagement, and that it goes back some time. Problems in hiring are in some ways local within our agency, but it also seems to me it has been a problem across the federal government. Again, it may be partly from sequestration limitations, once those came on, and it just took oodles of documentation and approvals just to hire somebody. It partly might be from more demanding OPM rules. Anyway, for some reason the agency has also the people who did most of the hiring—and the agency has now contracted that function out. I do not understand this. I also do not understand the contracts. But, look, in the end, there appear to be limitations on bringing people in the door.

To many readers, this will be scandalous—for the NWS to be getting worse, not better, at filling key hiring gaps when the nation needs the best warning it can get from the weather, right?

Sobien: The mission of the National Weather Service is to save lives and protect property. That’s as simply and clearly stated as I can get on this—that’s our mission, yes.

So, you can’t put your finger on why the hampered ability to hire—maybe this White House’s tone, OPM rules, contracting; in sum NWS is down hundreds of employees?

Sobien: Yes, we’re still down. But, again, to be fair I think there has been some real effort to correct this. There also remains some question, some disagreement—between Congress and the agency—about how many positions have actually been funded. Congress says “x number” of positions are fully funded. But the agency claims many of that x number are not funded. This remains yet another problem. Even so—even if you accept the lower numbers that the agency says are fully funded—we at NWS are just not even near filling all the slots. As I said, the National Weather Service was finally making some progress filling positions. But just as progress was taking off, the shutdown came along—and ruined it all. They’re trying again now. But they are so far in the hole, I don’t know how they will get where we need to be.

You’ve made it clear, the shutdown has been a big problem for hiring—but has it finally gotten any better in recent days?

Sobien: Well, maybe a little. Looking back, they spent a couple days shutting everything down. And then there was like a month where nothing happened. And then, inside of three weeks, everybody was supposed to get paid. There was some effort but also chaos on that. Just getting people paid properly—you have to know, they still haven’t figured that out. In fact, on pay since the shutdown they still are making all kinds of mistakes. And I mean taking money away from people, deducting money from checks and not paying properly. It’s an important story—that because of the government shutdown, many employees’ pay at our agency is still all screwed up. But, back to your question on hiring, finally—very recently—they seem to be back in the groove about hiring at least some people. But it’s not good that for months, there was—it seemed—very little hiring. I do not blame the agency alone here. People have to know that the shutdown has been very disruptive—and I mean to the present day.

Enough on hiring—any other management problems at the agency, problems that might be getting in the way of keeping the NWS on course?

Sobien: Yes. If I owned a restaurant, and something happened—the freezer or oven broke—I would know I have to tend to that first, with all hands on deck. To fix the main function of our business, cooking and serving food. Now, I have this problem here. The agency is taking a tremendous amount of resources negotiating our contracts. We have a contract we have been living with for years. What’s another six months? To my mind, it’s excessive what they have done. They have team after team of lawyers and consultants involved in renegotiating our contract. The old contract was negotiated in the late 90s and signed in the early 2000s—2001.

It should be renegotiated in a more direct way. Like, “Here are 5 things we want to change in the new contract,” they should say. And then they should say, “Here are our 5 things, now you give us your 5 things.” And then you just sit down, maybe order a pitcher of beer, and you work the two sides out. Instead what they are doing is a complex, complete rewrite from scratch, it seems. Of course, now the union has done a complete re-write too. So, if you ask me this way of negotiating that management came up with is a complete and total waste of my tax dollars.

Can you tell readers more about your critique of the agency’s personnel plans—you have criticized the agency’s attempts to cut NWS hours in Alaska and elsewhere?

Sobien: Have you got a good bit of time? That’s a lengthy story. The NWS has been looking for a long time at ways of cutting staff and possibly closing offices. The agency hired a big consulting firm—McKinsey and Company—on how to accomplish this. They came up with a plan to shut some offices nights and weekends. This has been problematic. They are being coy about the plan, and there are parts of it they seem to be using even though it’s a draft plan. They are implementing it a bit at a time, I think. In the administration’s budget, they propose to cut over 200 forecaster positions—and remember we have only about 1500 forecasters, all told, so that’s a lot. They propose to do this by cutting hours at some offices, so they need fewer forecasters. Another part of reducing staff is by trying to make changes in rules, so that they can reassign people to places that some won’t move to—so they’ll effectively quit—and that way NWS will reduce staff. For instance, they planned to close the Wichita office, on nights and weekends, as they would at some larger cities too. Doing this has some real-world implications, and would affect forecasting, in my view. Absolutely. The agency also has tried these methods and angles—like also reducing [the GS-level and pay] at some locations—to reduce staff and costs in Alaska. [NWSEO has pushed back on this in Alaska.] I’d add that I think this is really been pushed more by the White House Office of Management and Budget, rather than the agency itself.

I would think you would get good traction on such lurid stories, with major media?

Sobien: We have gotten some stories—hundreds of media stories out, on some of these matters. But, it has been my observation that many years ago, when I started in this role, a media story would cause a change of policy. This doesn’t seem to be as much the case anymore. And the administration will often enough just deny everything—just deny and deny.

Are you and the agency close to concluding that new contract?

Sobien: Oh, no. Not nearly. And this has gone on for a couple, a few, years. By the way the old contract—it’s an old contract—but it was amended all the time. Anything that didn’t work, we just worked it out and amended it. This is a total tear-up and it’s distracting and a waste of time. It’s distracting. But my biggest problem with it is the expense.

Finally, the NWS and your members have improved weather prediction power—despite the staffing problems, right?  

Sobien: Yes, the technology—the advancements in the science, it is all really amazing. Some of that is about improved theories, modeling. But a lot of it is just computing power to run the numbers, this enormous amount of data. We can see really bad weather coming several days in advance. As we just did in Wichita and elsewhere in the Midwest this month—in that area there has been some especially bad weather. So, what the technology can do is great. But, as I said, it is still all about skilled people looking at that data. In terms of predicting the big picture, it has gotten better—in advance warning, where we can predict that we are going to see a large number of long-track tornadoes or the like. But where we are better at this bigger picture, we are not as good at predicting the immediate, several-minutes-away, arrival of a tornado or the like. The lead times—we still need to get better at those. I can’t say staffing is a cause of not making as much progress here. But I can say we have spent a lot of money on the big picture—on predicting larger statewide and countrywide events, and on computers that we run in Washington and Orlando. And that’s good. But we still have a big opportunity on [strengthening predictions about] local weather events. Staff and manpower matters on this subject, too. You need rest time, and you need enough people to do this right. There has just not been enough focus on this. We need to narrow down on predicting where the track is going to be, on tornadoes, down to a quarter-mile size, down to an hour in advance. I think we can do this with the right effort.

Last question: Your union, how is it comprised? 

Sobien: We used to be affiliated with the AFL-CIO. We left that, strictly on financial grounds—we are a small union, and so that affiliation didn’t make financial sense for us. We have five bargaining units, all with NOAA. All, with one exception, are about both professional and non-professional employees. We also have research lab people, and attorneys that are involved. So, we have a variety.

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
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