Working to Improve the National Park Service Workplace Environment
U. S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks
Chairman Daines and Ranking Member Hirono,
Thank you for the opportunity to share our thoughts on ways to improve the workplace at the National Park Service (NPS). As National President of the National Treasury Employee Union (NTEU), I represent over 150,000 federal employees in 31 different agencies, including the NPS. Our purpose is “To organize federal employees to work together to ensure that every federal employee is treated with dignity and respect.” We know there have been times when the Park Service may have not performed well in that aspect, but I can assure you that frontline employees know that we are available to help them in situations that require remediation.
How does an organization improve its workplace environment? In my meetings with our NPS members, one solution is immediately raised time and time again – increase funding to a reasonable level. There is simply not enough funding available to keep our parks functioning. As you may know, there have been severe staffing shortages at NPS for years. In fact, many parks used to have twice the number of employees than they have onboard now. However, it is important to recognize that the workload does not change. NPS has previously changed workers’ shifts because of a lack of funds. For instance, for the last few years, when it snows, parks in the DC metro area have required employees to work overnight shifts instead of their day shifts, because the roads needed plowing and the parks wanted to limit overtime pay. This is only one example of an agency that is already operating on a shoestring. Let me add that this change was in violation of current statute, and NTEU took action to assure that improper and sudden disruption from regular work hours won’t happen again.
Although the NPS budget was announced with great fanfare by Secretary Zinke, saying “President Trump and I are absolutely committed to repairing our treasured national parks and making sure the American people have a world class experience when they visit our parks, and this budget reflects that”, the document itself tells a very different story:
The proposed budget for National Recreation and Preservation is scheduled for a reduction of $25.5 million. The document explains why this kind of reduction makes no sense: many parks have already implemented strategies to reduce costs and many other parks cannot achieve additional savings because they do not have periods of lower visitation or a way to limit public access. As a result, at the proposed budget levels many parks would be required to institute further reductions to services, operating hours, and to the number of full-time and seasonal employees. Service-wide, these adjustments could include the elimination of thousands of seasonal employees, leaving vacancies for key positions unfilled, all of which translate into an immediate problem for individuals visiting our nation’s parks.
Since FY 2011, the NPS workforce has decreased by more than 11 percent, at a time when visitors to the parks have increased by 17 percent. As one of our chapter leaders put it, “We’ve gone from doing more with less, to doing less with less.”
Maintenance is currently deferred because there are no funds. You may recall that the Washington Monument was in the news several times last year, when people were getting stuck in the elevator. When our union tried to have the elevator closed for a needed overhaul, management authorized a quick fix that did not last. However, we don’t regard this as management’s fault – for so long, the Park Service has been forced to MacGyver its maintenance problems because of a lack of adequate funding. Ultimately, we persuaded NPS to close the elevator and replace it because it posed a clear occupational health and safety problem for visitors and employees, and it is now getting the attention needed.
The proposed NPS budget would have tangible impacts to the visiting public that include: reduced hours of park operations; reduced Visitor Center hours; closing some Visitor Centers at parks that have multiple Centers; fewer ranger-led talks; decreased ability to conduct Search and Rescue operations for lost or injured visitors; increased maintenance backlogs leading to accidents in areas where sidewalks and other structures may go without repair or replacement; and, forced overtime for maintenance staff during the summer months because of serious staff shortages.
I recognize that this Committee takes its task in overseeing the Park Service very seriously. Likewise, NTEU seriously takes its task of representing employees, and sharing the perspectives of these experienced and knowledgeable individuals, who have chosen careers dedicated to the upkeep of our parks for the public. Our union does its best to make sure that all NPS employees come to work in a safe and respected environment. But improving the workplace takes more than vigilance. It takes funds. Funding the parks at a level where workers feel they are given what they need to be able to do the job is the place to start. Our members love being Park Service employees. They are dedicated to the mission and it’s frustrating to them to not be in a position to give the American public the experience our members want them to have. As one of our members said, “Parks cannot be automated. They don’t run themselves. You can’t set up an automatic check-in or checkout line for nature, not without forfeiting the opportunity to briefly engage every single visitor and impart to them the basic things they need to keep in mind to have a satisfying and safe visit.” Please help to improve the NPS workplace, and the public’s parks, by rejecting the Administration’s proposed FY 2018 NPS budget, and properly fund them instead. Thank you for taking our views into consideration.