The National Weather Service, which is in the spotlight following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, is dangerously understaffed and overworked, as hundreds of vacant positions have created a situation in which "employees are fatigued and morale is low," according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
The hurricanes have once again shown the importance of the federal agency's work, but as of July, the NWS had 668 vacant positions and a workforce of 4,300 people, reports CBS News, quoting the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO), the union representing NWS employees.
"Many forecast offices are struggling to fill emergency essential shifts with the burden placed on the backs of dedicated employees," the NWSEO said in a report. "Overtime work is routine in many offices as emergency essential positions go unfilled for months and sometimes years. The long-term vacancy crisis is degrading service to the American public and jeopardizing the NWS mission of saving lives and protecting property."
The union reported hearing from employees who are struggling with health and work-life issues because of the overtime hours that have been created by the hundreds of vacancies.
The GAO report notes that in 2006, 5 percent of the positions at the NWS were not filled, but the figure rose to about 11 percent by 2016.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the NWS, does not yet have a director, Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida, noted in a letter in June to President Donald Trump, urging him to name a director.
"Fatigued employees make less accurate predictions," said Crist, whose district includes the National Hurricane Center. "Less accurate predictions mean more lives are at risk during severe weather events."
Benjamin Friedman, the agency's Deputy Under Secretary for Operations, is currently acting as the NOAA's administrator.
According to the NOAA, Friedman's regular role has him serving as the agency's chief operating officer.
Louis Uccellini, who has headed the NWS since 2013, is making addressing the hiring backlog a top priority, and agency spokesman Christopher Vaccaro told CBS that the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and local NWS offices are "fulfilling the agency's mission of protecting lives and property as they issue timely and accurate forecasts for these storms."
"As evident during Harvey and Irma, NOAA will always provide the critical forecasts and services that the public, emergency managers and other partners need to make informed decisions and remain safe," said Vaccaro.
The agency's hiring problems date back to 2013, when sequestration cuts left the NOAA implementing a hiring freeze. The freeze was lifted in 2014, but half of the NWS staff that had been tasked with hiring left while it was still in effect, according to the GAO report.
After that, the vacant meteorologist positions went up by 57 percent between fiscal years 2014 and 2016.
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