Amid Pandemic, State Department Halts Incoming Classes of New Diplomats

Health concerns deal another blow to the U.S. foreign service, which is already overstretched following a 2017 hiring freeze.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefs the media in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 25. Andrew Cabarello-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department has indefinitely postponed adding new diplomats to its ranks due to the coronavirus pandemic, piling further strains on a department tasked with coordinating the global response to the crisis and potentially leaving many future foreign service professionals without paychecks or health care for the foreseeable future. 

Two classes of new diplomats amounting to about 175 people were supposed to join the State Department in the next month to help replenish ranks of the U.S. foreign service. But the department has postponed bringing on board these classes, one of foreign service generalists and one of foreign service specialists, according to officials familiar with the matter. In a memo sent to the future diplomats, the department said it was unable to give them salaries or benefits before they officially become employees due to laws and regulations, but that their employment offer is still valid. 

The decision was made due to health concerns from the pandemic and federal government directives barring large gatherings of employees, such as onboarding classes for new diplomats, a State Department spokesperson said. Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat, described it as a blow to a foreign service that was already understaffed and overstretched after draconian cuts and a hiring freeze instituted under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. 

Mike Pompeo lifted the hiring freeze when he became secretary of state in 2018, but several State Department officials say they are still feeling the long-term sting of the freeze with understaffed offices and overseas posts. The hiring freeze undercut U.S. foreign-policy priorities and left critical staffing gaps at embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, according to a report issued by the State Department’s internal watchdog last year.

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The number of foreign service officers declined from 14,029 in early 2017 to 13,592 by the end of 2019, according to State Department data published by the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents foreign service officers.

The decision to block new classes of foreign service officers comes as the State Department finds itself overstretched with the task of mounting a global response to the coronavirus pandemic, including helping bring tens of thousands of American citizens abroad back home. 

The decision also doesn’t appear square with President Donald Trump’s aim to reopen the country’s economy and ease restrictions on American workers by mid-April. “I hope we can do this by Easter. I think that would be a great thing for our country, and we’re all working very hard to make that a reality. We’ll be meeting with a lot of people to see if it can be done,” Trump said at a White House briefing on Tuesday. 

“Suggesting somehow that for the foreseeable future that the foreign service can’t bring in new officers while Donald Trump is saying we should all be back in business by April 12 just doesn’t compute,” Bruen said. 

Asked to comment, a State Department spokesperson said the department “is taking steps to limit large gatherings of both staff and the public, and conducting orientation classes virtually is not a viable option at this time. As such, postponing the incoming classes is essential to protecting our workforce and the public.” The spokesperson did not elaborate on why the department could not conduct orientation virtually.

“Although we made significant efforts to move forward with the classes, the unprecedented and rapidly evolving global response to COVID-19 ultimately made postponement more prudent from both a health and logistical perspective,” the spokesperson said. “This is a decision that we did not take lightly, in consideration of the personal preparations that our future employees made to join these classes.”

In the memo to the future employees shared with Foreign Policy, the State Department made clear it wouldn’t be able to offer salaries, benefits, or allowances to the people that were supposed to begin work within the next month. By law and regulation, salary and benefits to employees of the U.S. government are only available once a candidate has entered on duty and officially become an employee of the Department of State. Allowances are not available prior to entry on duty, even if candidates have previously received travel orders,the memo said.

We can confirm that our previous offer of employment to you is still valid for onboarding in the future at a date that is yet to be determined.  Because this offer continues to be valid, you will not be returned to a Foreign Service register; we are making special accommodations to include you in a future class sometime over the course of the next twelve months, the memo reads.

Update, March 26, 2020: This article was updated to include new information from the State Department for future employees. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer