Veterans already in the pipeline for job openings in the federal workforce could have their employment opportunities scrapped under the hiring freeze announced Monday by President Donald Trump.
The freeze could also make the preferences for veterans in applying for jobs in federal hiring meaningless.
"There's no preference if there's no job," said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense for personnel in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Veterans make up about 30 percent of the more than 2.8 million employees in the federal workforce -- many of them at the Defense Department. Vets have traditionally received preferences in testing and hiring and also in retention during reductions of the workforce, according to the White House Office of Personnel Management.
According to OPM, the federal government hired 221,000 workers in fiscal 2015, the most recent year for which data were available.
In the Oval Office on Monday, Trump signed a memorandum to the heads of all executive departments and agencies ordering "a freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees to be applied across the board in the executive branch." Trump said as he signed the document: "Except for the military, except for the military."
At a White House briefing Tuesday, new Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that the hiring freeze would apply to the VA, which had been seeking to bring on 2,000 new employes to help clear up appointment backlogs and improve care.
Spicer justified the VA hiring freeze by saying that it would be fiscally irresponsible at this time to add workers to a dysfunctional system at the VA. "Right now, the system's broken," Spicer said. "When you have a system that's not working, and then going out and hiring additional people doesn't seem to be the most efficient way of solving the problem."
According to VA figures, more than half a million vets now wait more than a month for appointments, but Spicer said that "What we need to do, whether it's the VA or any other agency, is make sure that we're hiring smartly and effectively and efficiently."
The hiring freeze could also have a particular impact on military spouses who had federal jobs near the base where their husband or wife was stationed and then were affected by a permanent change of station.
An Air Force wife who contacted Military.com said she had a federal job at her husband's base but had to give it up when the family recently moved to a new base. She said that she was placed on a Priority Placement Program for a similar federal job at the new base but has now been told she won't be hired because of the freeze.
Trump also ordered that OPM recommend within 90 days a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government's workforce through attrition. "Once the plan was submitted, the hiring freeze would end," the memo said.
The memo stated, "As part of this freeze, no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances."
"This order does not include or apply to military personnel," the memo said, and "the head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities."
"In addition, the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary," the memo said.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the 1.7 million member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said "yes" when asked if the freeze could hurt vets, but stressed that his organization isn't yet taking a position.
"We want to see the specifics," he said. "The executive order was issued yesterday, but there was no meat to it. We want to see how this plays out" before assessing its impact.
Davis noted that Trump repeatedly pledged during the campaign to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department to eliminate wait times and improve care for veterans. To do that, "obviously, you need personnel," Davis said.
The VA currently has openings for 2,000 jobs, according to The Washington Post.
Although the military was exempted, the freeze would still impact troops and their families by limiting the hiring of Defense Department civilians who support them, said Philip Carter, an Army veteran of Iraq who worked on veterans issues in the Obama administration and now is an analyst for the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
In a Tweet, Carter said that the "hiring freeze exempts mil personnel -- but will hurt military by curtailing hire of DoD civilians who provide vital spt [support] to troops, families."
Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a labor union representing some 100,000 workers, said that the freeze "will cripple employment opportunities particularly for women, veterans, minorities and the disabled."
"President Trump needs to stop campaigning and start governing," Erwin said. "This executive order shows he is still campaigning, only now he is doing it at the taxpayers' expense.
"I do not think President Trump understands the crippling effect a hiring freeze has on the ability of agencies to function, or perhaps he just does not care," he added. "Either way, this is bad news for the American people."
At his first full White House briefing on Monday, new Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the freeze was in line with Trump's "drain the swamp" campaign pledges to cut bureaucracy and red tape.
Spicer said there has been a "a lack of respect for taxpayer dollars in this town for a long time and I think what the president's showing through the hiring freeze [is] that we've got to respect the American taxpayer."
The press secretary contrasted what federal workers do with those in the private sector.
"Some people are working two, three jobs just to get by," Spicer said, "and to see money get wasted in Washington on a job that is duplicative is insulting to the hard work they do to pay their taxes."
During the campaign, Trump made a federal hiring freeze a main feature of what he called his "Contract With The American Voter." He said that, if elected, the freeze would be part of his "100-day action plan to Make America Great Again."
Korb, who is now a military analyst at the Center for American Progress, said that federal hiring freezes were tried before in the administrations of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan but failed to cut overall costs.
"We tried it twice before and it ended up costing more money," he said.
Richard G. Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which represents 300,000 current and former workers, said in a statement that the move will simply shift work to contractors at higher costs.
"Under a hiring freeze, work now performed by federal employees is likely to be outsourced to contractors at an even higher cost to taxpayers," the statement said. "That's exactly what happened during the hiring freezes initiated by the Carter and Reagan administrations, according to a 1982 audit report on the policies by the Government Accountability Office."
Trump's memo specifically addressed the contractor issue, stating, "Contracting outside the government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.