(USA TODAY) -- Federal employees' job security is so great that workers in many agencies are more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off or fired, a USA TODAY analysis finds.
Death - rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs - is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.
The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 - 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance, says John Palguta, former research chief at the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, which handles federal firing disputes.
The 1,800-employee Federal Communications Commission and the 1,200-employee Federal Trade Commission didn't lay off or fire a single employee last year. The SBA had no layoffs, six firings and 17 deaths in its 4,000-employee workforce.
When job security is at a premium, the federal government remains the place to work for those who want to avoid losing a job. The job security rate for all federal workers was 99.43% last year and nearly 100% for those on the job more than a few years.
HUD spokesman Jerry Brown says his department's low dismissal rate - providing a 99.85% job security rate for employees - shows a skilled and committed workforce. "We've never focused on firing people, and we don't intend to start now. We're more focused on hiring the right people," he says.
San Francisco State University management professor John Sullivan, an expert on employee turnover, says the low departure rates show a failure to release poor performers and those with obsolete skills. "Rather than indicating something positive, rates below 1% in the firing and layoff components would indicate a serious management problem," he says.
The government laid off 385 people in reorganizations last year - a 0.02% rate, or one in every 6,000 employees. No comparable private sector layoff rate is available.
USA TODAY analyzed the Office of Personnel Management's database to examine job security in the federal workforce. Firings are for all reasons, including poor performance, stealing and sexual harassment. The Postal Service and uniformed military personnel are not included in the data. Departures from seasonal jobs, such as Census taker, are not counted.
"The notion that you can't fire federal workers is a myth because we do it. But it doesn't happen frequently," says Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, which advocates for a high-quality government workforce.
Palguta says some federal workers quit before they are fired, so the data underestimate how many poor performers are weeded out. Efforts to streamline the government cause few layoffs because federal law gives preference to certain workers, such as military veterans, making it hard to match protected workers with the skills needed, he says.
USA TODAY found that nearly 60% of firings occur in the first two years of employment, mostly workers on probation and outside the federal job protection system. Blue-collar workers are twice as likely to be fired as white-collar employees. The federal government's 12,700 food preparation workers had the highest rate of getting fired last year - 2.5%.
White-collar federal workers have almost total job security after a few years on the job. Last year, the government fired none of its 3,000 meteorologists, 2,500 health insurance administrators, 1,000 optometrists, 800 historians or 500 industrial property managers.
The nearly half-million federal employees earning $100,000 or more enjoyed a 99.82% job security rate in 2010. Only 27 of 35,000 federal attorneys were fired last year. None was laid off. Death claimed 33.
•Secure location. The 168,000 federal workers in Washington had the safest jobs - 99.74% job security in 2010. Least secure: Indiana - 98.35%.
•Salary. Two-thirds of those fired or laid off earned less than $50,000 a year.
•Total turnover. NASA, the space agency, had the government's lowest total turnover rate in 2010 - just 4% of its 18,700 employees quit, died, retired or were dismissed.