WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Federation of Indian Service Employees union want to know why the new Obama administration is cutting around 180 BIA jobs proposed by the former Bush administration even though money is available to fund them.
FISE Administrator Michael Jennings said around 180 employees at the BIA and BIE (Bureau of Indian Education), mostly American Indians who provide services to tribes nationwide, have been targeted for job cuts or furloughs even though funding is available through Congress’ continuing funding resolution, a contingency fund, and increased funding in the stimulus bill.
But BIA officials said that only 52 jobs will be affected and they could be restored if Congress passes an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2009.
Any number of job losses flies in the face of President Obama’s pledge to create jobs, Jennings said.
“We find great irony in the fact that Obama is talking about creating jobs and the fact that on reservations unemployment is running around 50, 60 percent, and the federal government has treaty obligations to the nation’s First Peoples, yet nothing is happening in the Department of the Interior to stop these job losses. They continue the same bad practices they had since Custer,” Jennings said.
According to written “reduction in force” notices – RIFs – from the BIA, the cuts originally included around 65 faculty and staff members at BIE schools in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, whose jobs will end in the middle of the school year, causing, in some cases an immediate impact on student learning by increasing class sizes. Three employees at the Turtle Mountain Elementary School in North Dakota were laid off in January. As this story was going to press, the union received notice that 19 of the RIFs had been rescinded, reducing the number of lost jobs in this category to around 45.
Other RIFs affect around 100 members of maintenance crews, who are being furloughed indefinitely, and employees at the Housing Improvement Program, despite the fact that the program is currently funded by Congress’ continuing funding resolution. Other job losses are in the branches of transportation and construction and fire management.
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said only 52 jobs are affected and all of them are based on funding formulas or budgets that were agreed to or passed under the Bush administration.
“The first type of furlough of nine jobs scheduled primarily to affect road maintenance workers and BIA and is largely the result of funding for fiscal year 2009 running out. There was a second type of furlough that affected three teachers and 40 support staff at the four BIE schools and these are the result of declining student enrollment. The budget for those schools is determined by a funding formula linked to student enrollment that was agreed to after the No Child Left Behind Act was passed.”
“If Congress passes a fiscal year 2009 appropriations bill, however, much of this issue will be resolved,” Darling said.
Jennings said he could not explain the difference in numbers.
“They send us the notifications. We have a stack of RIFs from them. We assume those are real, so I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers from. We’re getting ours from them. At this point, I have no written notification that they’re talking about around 50 people, which would be much better than 180, but it still begs the question, what are they doing with the hold back money which would easily cover these education salaries?” Jennings said.
The holdback money is one percent of the BIE budget the agency is mandated to keep “to meet emergencies and unforeseen contingencies affecting educational programs.” According to documents released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the contingency fund for the current year is $3.5 million. As of Feb. 2, the agency had spent only $10,555 for an electric generator.
Jennings said the union asked BIE officials in Albuquerque, where FISE is headquartered, to use the contingency fund to keep people employed.
“What we got back was, ‘That’s for emergencies,’ and we said, ‘Well, this is an emergency,’ and they said it doesn’t count. We asked what constitutes an emergency, but that question was not actually answered.”
He said FISE has received hundreds of RIFs during the Bush administration and has lost about 1,300 jobs during that time.
Last year the union won an arbitration battle that reinstated around 30 people slated for RIFs at the Sherman Indian School in Riverside, Calif.
“Now they want to lay them off again, because they claim they’ve run out of money,” Jennings said. He said the union contract calls for the BIE to use due diligence in planning and preparation to avoid RIFs.
“That means there should be good management oversight, and since school budgets are done a year in advance they should know at the end of the school year if they have to drop people and notify them then so that classes aren’t disrupted and employees can go out and look for jobs,“ Jennings said. Not that there is a cornucopia of jobs for them to chose from, Jennings added.
“These are reservation jobs where you either work for the BIA or you work for the tribe. There aren’t any other jobs for these people to find there.”
In a Jan. 22 letter, FISE’s General Counsel Richard Hirn told BIA Director Jerry Gidner that he had exceeded his authority when he said in a Jan. 13 memo that the Interior Department had “eliminated the (Housing Improvement) program and its direct funding.”
“As you know,” Hirn wrote, “the Department itself does not ‘eliminate’ funding nor does it authorize termination of ongoing programs – only Congress does that.”
Despite efforts by Bush and the Interior Department to eliminate the Housing Improvement Program, a House Appropriations Committee Report said Congress would continue funding the program because “the Committee is concerned that the housing needs of Indian country are not being met.”
“Thus, termination of this program while under a continuing resolution that funds programs at FY ’08 levels is patently contrary to the expressed will of Congress,” Hirn wrote.
Hirn told Gidner that his approval of a RIF eliminating jobs held by six BIA employees in the Housing Improvement Program “is both premature and not legally authorized, and should be rescinded.”
There is speculation that until Obama appoints his own people throughout the various agencies, the previous administration’s plans are being carried out by Bush administration holdovers.
Whatever the reason, the union would like the new administration to rescind the RIFs now, Jennings said.
“I’d like to hold the incoming secretary and the Obama administration to their commitment to create jobs for the most unemployed people in the country – the Native people.”