Weather Service employees fear hiring freeze, tout jobs as life-savers

National Weather Service employees are touting their roles as life-savers during extreme weather events, hoping to avoid a federal hiring freeze promised by President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

A memo distributed this month to members of Congress by the NWS Employees Organization says meteorologists and some support staff are designated as “emergency essential” and should be excluded if the new administration stops filling federal vacancies.

The message also comes after the union obtained a July presentation given by NWS Director Louis Uccellini that outlines a reorganization proposal to reduce service hours at four of Florida’s six weather-forecasting offices, said Dan Sobien, president of the employees organization.

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Under the plan, which NWS spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said was an early draft, only Miami and Tallahassee would remain 24-hour offices, according to Sobien. Offices in Tampa, Jacksonville, Melbourne, and Key West would no longer have overnight shifts.

The National Weather Service has been working on a deep restructuring that includes upgrades in technology and staffing changes meant to free up meteorologists to work more closely with the community and reduce overnight hours.

There are 122 weather forecasting offices nationwide. All operate around the clock.

“All offices would remain open during full-time business hours at least, and many would remain open 24 hours per day,” Buchanan said. “The proposal calls for the identification of which (if any) offices might be able to reduce or eliminate the overnight shift.”

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She said weather-service employees have requested fewer overnight shifts because it’s “physically demanding and difficult on families.” No final decisions have been made as to what offices could act as testing grounds for the new schedules.

But Sobien is concerned that local knowledge of how weather affects specific areas will be lost if some office hours are cut back, leaving meteorologists unfamiliar with those regions to fill in the gaps.

“The forecasters in Tallahassee are just as good as those in Tampa, but they don’t know the meteorological idiosyncrasies,” Sobien said. “That’s something that local forecasters know. They can learn them, but you tend to forecast for where you live.”

Sobien said he knows the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the NWS through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a transition briefing that was presented to Trump staffers.

“I assume they gave the transition team the whole reorganization plan and tried to give them the sell,” Sobien said. “We are hoping we can get the National Weather Service and our problems on their radar screen.”

According to the memo, there were 643 vacant National Weather Service positions as of Nov. 1, which is about 13 percent of the workforce. It also cites a 2012 National Research Council of the National Academies report that said reviews of nine major storms between 2008 and 2015 found “the ability of the NWS to protect lives during these major events was compromised due to inadequate staffing at forecast offices or river forecast centers.”

The service has struggled with filling vacant positions, including in the Miami office, which forecasts for Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Collier, Glades and Hendry counties. In January, the office was operating at about 60 percent, but additional people have since been hired and it is now fully staffed.

The National Hurricane Center has five vacancies, the union said.

“We are already down a phenomenal number of people nationwide, and a hiring freeze could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for us,” said Sobien, adding that he’s not “encouraged or discouraged” about the new administration’s plans.

“It’s a blank slate, so in that sense, it’s good,” he said.

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