Demand for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) help has increased with more frequent and complex disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that FEMA has had trouble building a workforce to meet these needs. It has fallen short of its yearly staffing target since 2019, and that gap continues to grow.
FEMA uses different processes under various statutory authorities to hire employees by type, such as permanent full-time employees and temporary reservists. Additionally, FEMA uses hiring flexibilities to hire employees for critical positions and augments its workforce if a disaster or emergency exceeds FEMA’s capacity, such as with local hires and contractors, among others. FEMA also reports its time frames for hiring employees, known as time-to-hire, on a quarterly basis to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, GAO found FEMA has challenges calculating and reporting consistent and accurate timeframes for hiring to DHS.
As of the beginning of fiscal year 2022, FEMA had approximately 11,400 disaster employees on board and a staffing goal of 17,670, creating an overall staffing gap of approximately 6,200 staff (35 percent) across different positions. FEMA officials attributed recent staffing gaps to multiple factors. These included additional responsibilities due to COVID-19 and managing the rising disaster activity during the year, which increased burnout and employee attrition.
Starting in 2019, FEMA initiated several efforts, including hiring events and use of contractors, to increase its disaster workforce and reduce these gaps. While FEMA is taking steps to address staffing gaps, GAO said it is unclear if these efforts are effective.
The watchdog noted that FEMA lacks documented plans and performance measures to monitor and evaluate its hiring progress within cadres (workforce groups) toward the larger disaster workforce goal. Without documented plans and measures, such as cadre net growth targets, GAO believes it is difficult for FEMA to determine how effective hiring efforts are at closing staffing gaps and prioritizing hiring efforts within the disaster workforce accordingly.
GAO recommends that FEMA document clear and consistent procedures to collect and calculate time-to-hire information; document plans to monitor and evaluate the agency’s progress on hiring efforts to address staffing gaps; and develop performance measures that monitor and evaluate progress towards goals, including net growth targets for cadres to achieve FEMA’s long-term disaster workforce staffing goal. FEMA concurred with the recommendations.