Can civil employees be fired for their political leanings or scientific pursuits?
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was openly critical of federal regulations and openly skeptical of global warming. Now, before even taking office, his transition team has asked for lists of Department of Energy employees who attended climate change meetings.
Appointees and civil servants in the DOE and other agencies are spooked. Will there be a McCarthy-ish witch hunt? Will employees be punished for pursuing certain lines of research? In the bigger picture, some are bracing for a sea change in the mission – or an attempt to purge data.
Federal workers are protected somewhat from arbitrary termination. But they may face hostile relationships with management and other forms of retaliation, especially those who blow the whistle or refuse to toe the new party line.
Union leaders and federal employees are on edge
A number of Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments have been controversial. But the request to name names of DOE employees who participated in climate change was especially chilling. The questionnaire was viewed by many as a signal of a coming “cleansing.” After strong pushback from DOE leadership and public opinion, the Trump transition team withdrew the request, but the anxiety remains.
Federal workers have greater job protection than their private sector counterparts, but that does not mean they are safe. Among the possible threats to federal agency employees who clash with a new administration:
- Termination in an agency downsizing
- Termination for poor performance
- Retaliation and hostile work environment
- Whistleblower retaliation
- Denial or rescinding of security clearance
Political differences over scientific principles – such as global warming, fracking or offshore drilling – are not grounds for dismissal. But layoffs and performance reviews are commonly used as an excuse to purge employees who are not on board with a change in the department’s mission. For example, Mr. Trump has suggested that NASA focus less on monitoring the Earth’s atmosphere and more on space exploration, a shift which could create considerable friction. Probationary employees, appointees and independent contractors are especially at risk to firing or discrimination because they have fewer rights.
Be cautious and document everything
Government climate scientists are scrambling to archive important research, out of fear that it will be destroyed under new leadership. On a personal level, federal employees should document any action that smacks of intimidation, harassment, retaliation or a set-up for firing. You have a right to challenge adverse performance reviews, disciplinary actions or termination decisions. Is there a pattern? When did it start? Are you being singled out?
If you have experienced hostile actions or suspect you are being pushed out, contact an attorney who practices specifically in federal employment law and Merit Systems Protection Board proceedings.
Source: DOE Rejects Request To Name Names (Washington Post)