In another workforce shakeup from the Agriculture Department, the Forest Service notified staff Friday about an upcoming reduction in force (RIF) that could target as many as 1,000 employees amid its decision to move its Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers to the Labor Department.
In an all-hands email sent to employees on Friday, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the reorganization serves as part of Secretary Sonny Perdue’s goal to make USDA “the most effective, efficient, and customer-focused department in the entire federal government.”
“Transitioning operations of Jobs Corps Centers currently operated by the Forest Service to the Department of Labor is good government,” Christiansen wrote. “This transfer is intended to make the entire Job Corps program more efficient and flexible to local needs when operated by State or private sector entities.”
Since 1964, Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers have offered vocational training in more than 30 fields to teenagers and young adults who are 16-to-24 years old. In addition to conservation efforts, Job Corps students also serve as first responders to disasters such as wildfires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.
Perdue, in a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, said USDA staff are working on amending its interagency agreement with DOL to lay the foundation for the Job Corps center transfer.
“As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative that the Forest Service focus on and prioritize our core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our Nation’s forests, and step away from activities and programs that are not essential to that core mission,” Perdue wrote in the letter.
USDA expects the transition will be completed by the end of September.
Brittany Holder, a National Federation of Federal Employees spokeswoman, said the Forest Service has also offered Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) to eligible employees, but didn’t have an estimate of how many employees would take the buyout offers.
Forest Service employees affected by the RIF, Holder added, will be eligible for priority placement within USDA and other agencies. Agency positions facing layoffs include teachers, administrative staff and vocational staff who teach trades such as welding, business, finance and urban forestry.
Christiansen, in her email to staff, said the RIF “does not reflect on the quality” of their work.
“We value the service and contributions Forest Service Job Corps CCC has made to our mission in its decades long history,” she wrote.
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The Labor Department said in a press release that an upcoming notice in the Federal Register would propose nine of the 25 centers for “deactivation.” Those centers are located in Montana, Wisconsin, Virginia, Washington state, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oregon. The remaining 16 centers would get transferred to DOL.
NFFE President Randy Erwin, in a statement, said the Job Corps program enjoys bipartisan support. About 80% percent of students who graduate from the program go on to get a job, enter the military or enroll in continuing education coursework. The RIF, he said, would mean a “loss of resources” to communities that have seen more devastating wildfire in recent years.
“Labor Secretary Acosta and Agriculture Secretary Purdue have teamed up to usurp Congress by acting without the proper authority or an intelligent strategy with the hope of closing these centers before the Congress can act,” Erwin said in a statement.
DOL’s press release said the agency will increase student access to Job Corps centers “with the highest sustained student performance outcomes,” and will maintain at least one center in each state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
However, a USDA spokesperson said in an email Friday that the agency “is not closing centers,” but confirmed the USDA is transferring operations to DOL.
Holder said NFFE would consider its options next week to challenge the decision, including urging members of Congress to insert language in the fiscal 2020 spending bill that would prohibit the reorganization.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a coalition of Democratic senators Thursday in introducing the Agriculture Research Integrity Act, which would bar USDA from relocating its National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) out of the national capital region.