Nine Major Takeaways From the Omnibus and Coronavirus Relief Packages

RikkieBel/Shutterstock.com

Funding boosts and hiring pushes are coming for many federal agencies.

After significant delay and months of negotiation, Congress has passed agreements on a twin set of packages to fund the government and provide coronavirus relief. 

The measures will have far-reaching impacts on federal agencies, setting line-by-line funding for every office in government for fiscal 2021. Nearly all federal agencies will see a funding boost in the $1.4 trillion omnibus as a result of a two-year budget agreement President Trump signed in 2019. Lawmakers included some notable provisions for federal operations in the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package as well. They did not include all of the requests made by federal employee advocates, but civil servants will see a small pay bump next year as a result of the deal (read our full coverage of the pay and benefits implications of the measures here).

Here is a look at other significant provisions in the bills as they relate to federal agencies: 

  1. U.S. Postal Service: The cash-strapped mail agency will at long last receive part of the financial assistance it has requested. Congress provided a $10 billion cash infusion to USPS by converting a previously approved line of credit into a grant. Both Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and his predecessor Megan Brennan have said some appropriation would be necessary to offset the losses the Postal Service sustained during the pandemic, as a result of both mail volume losses and increased sick leave and personal protective equipment costs. The funding falls short of the $25 billion House Democrats approved earlier this year and the $75 billion in relief postal management originally sought under Brennan’s leadership, but will help USPS stave off any immediate liquidity crisis. 
  2. Offsets for other losses: The omnibus funding bill will provide Customs and Border Protection with $840 million in emergency funding to offset losses from the pandemic due to lost customs and immigration fees. CBP had briefly floated the possibility of furloughing employees as a result of the revenue loss. The Office of Personnel Management will see a nearly 10% spending increase to make up for funding lost when it transferred background investigation services to the Defense Department. The measure again rejects the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate OPM by folding it into the White House and General Services Administration.
  3. Hiring initiatives: Lawmakers are looking to reverse the ongoing effects of an extended hiring freeze at the State Department implemented when Trump first took office, funding it to return to 2016 workforce levels. They requested bimonthly reports through September 2022 on staffing levels, hiring and attrition across each State component. The Federal Aviation Administration is receiving funding to boost staffing and was asked to use direct hire authority and signing bonuses to increase its rolls. It will also have to provide rolling staffing and attrition data to Congress. The Bureau of Prisons, which has struggled with understaffing throughout the pandemic, was similarly directed to return to 2016 workforce levels and use various incentives to recruit new employees. Congress directed the Veterans Affairs Department secretary to develop an analysis and cost estimate for full staffing of the Veterans Health Administration, which has struggled with high vacancy rates for years but saw unprecedented hiring during the pandemic. Lawmakers directed VA to boost hiring for its joint program with the Housing and Urban Development Department to eliminate veterans homelessness, and instructed the department’s inspector general to ensure VA is developing a comprehensive staffing model. The National Labor Relations Board, Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Security Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, Farm Services Agency and National Weather Service are also facing requirements to boost staffing and must report to Congress on their efforts to do so.                       
  4. Restrictions on workforce changes: The part of the omnibus that funds the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency, which have consolidated offices and relocated others during the Trump administration, adds new restrictions on any such efforts going forward. Any workforce action that affects just 10 employees will now require congressional approval. The Army must notify and provide justification to Congress if it plans to lay off more than 50 employees from any of its industrial bases. Lawmakers blocked the Agriculture Department from closing some laboratories it had proposed shuttering. 
  5. Vaccine distribution: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received $8.5 billion to facilitate the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Part of that effort will involve sending vaccine doses to a handful of federal agencies that will inoculate their employees directly. The Health and Human Services Department will receive a total of $73 billion for pandemic response. Employer-based vaccine access for those federal workers fortunate enough to receive it will likely come as small consolation for employees, who had pushed for access to hazard pay and other benefits for those on the front lines during the pandemic. 
  6. Reforming federal law enforcement: Congress included a provision requiring the attorney general to implement evidence-based training programs on de-escalation, use of force and police-community relations across all federal law enforcement entities. All agencies with law enforcement personnel must keep lawmakers and the Justice Department abreast of their efforts and consult the FBI regarding participation in the national use-of-force data collection program, which the bureau launched last year. Justice and the Bureau of Prisons specifically must review their use-of-force policies and post them publicly. 
  7. Homeland Security Department priorities: Congress largely rejected President Trump’s push for more hiring at Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though it provided $8 million so ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations could boost staffing. ICE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were rare agencies to see their funding cut in the omnibus compared to fiscal 2020, and ICE’s immigration enforcement operations will see a roughly 8% reduction. Congress blocked the Transportation Security Administration from restricting its hiring, as it had planned. DHS will receive a stable level of funding for physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. 
  8. Pandemic response oversight: Congress allotted $10 million in emergency funding for the Government Accountability Office to provide oversight of federal agencies' coronavirus response efforts. It separately provided funding for GAO to hire more employees with scientific backgrounds. 
  9. Public transit funding: This issue was of particular concern to the federal employees in the Washington area, many of whom rely on the region’s metro service to commute to work. The mass transit system’s governing body had threatened to severely cut back on service, potentially disrupting the commutes for hundreds of thousands of federal workers when they eventually return to their offices. The region will receive $800 million in mass transit funding, likely eliminating the immediate risk for cuts. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the provision would ensure “public transit services survive this crisis [and] is essential for the federal government and frontline workers.”