OPM Director’s Suggestion on Gig Economy Draws Union Leader’s Rebuff

(Image: Federal Times)

The Director of the Office of Personnel Management said this week that the Federal government should take cues from the private sector “gig economy” to leverage quick talent acquisition and short-term work, drawing forceful pushback from a government employees union.

OPM Director Jeff Pon said Wednesday at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing that the Federal government needs to adapt to a different model–used by companies like Uber–where participants can choose when and for how long they want to work.

“Today’s workforce is increasingly shifting towards a gig economy where employees work for shorter periods of time in mission-focused areas,” Pon said. “Our ability to accommodate this in federal work employment is constrained by our rules and system of design at a time when most workers don’t expect to sign up for a long career.”

Pon said the advent of new technology, like the gig economy’s various smartphone-fueled, on-demand task applications, is making acquiring good talent easier, but the Federal government has not kept pace.

“It’s not a question of technology anymore,” Pon said. “We actually have the technology that works on a private phone but not on our government phones. We need to make that transition.”

“As workers enter their careers we should prize mobility over stability. We should seek avenues to give talented individuals opportunities to work in short-term jobs with portable benefits,” he added.

But Pon’s vision to leverage technology to overhaul the Federal workforce has been met with skepticism by advocacy groups and union representatives who see it as a veiled bid to slash civil service employee retirement benefits. Employment benefits are typically not provided to the gig economy’s fleet of at-will, independent contractors.

Pon recently sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan articulating the administration’s plan to create $143.5 billion in savings through adjustments to retirement benefits, which Pon said would “bring Federal benefits more in line with the private sector.”

During the second panel of Wednesday’s hearing, Jacqueline Simon, Director of Public Policy at the American Federation of Government Employees–an AFL-CIO affiliate–called potential alignment with the gig aspect of the private sector a dangerous avenue.

“It is a noxious myth that today’s workers or tomorrow’s workers don’t want or need job security,” Simon said. “Just because the gig economy has made employment for so many Americans unstable and insecure doesn’t mean the federal government should follow suit.”

AFGE is the largest federal employee union representing around 700,000 Federal employees. Simon argued that its members don’t need the hardships endured by on-demand workers.

“Contingent workers like adjunct professors and Uber drivers are doing whatever they can to organize so that they can obtain stable career employment,” she said. “The administration’s apparent goal of making the Federal government an employer of poorly-compensated contingent workers is not, I repeat, is not what the workforce wants.”

Simon levied stern charges against the administration’s personnel management agenda, calling it a “set of worst practices” that “would sabotage government agencies.”

Pon said he has had several discussions with unions around workforce concerns since being named OPM Director March 9.

“I’m trying to build a relationship with the unions since I am new to the position of OPM director,” he said. “There’s not too much right now that we can agree on, but at least we’re having the talks that we can disagree on. I think that’s a good first step for us.”

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