Ahead of relocation, USDA employees up for buyouts worth $10K, not $25K

Eligible employees at the Agriculture Department who plan to leave the agency rather than relocate to Kansas City by the end of the fiscal year will receive buy...

Buyouts given to employees who have chosen to leave the Agriculture Department over relocating to Kansas City in the next month will look much lighter now than what the agency initially advertised.

Employees eligible for a Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) or Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) will receive $10,000 to leave USDA — $15,000 less than the statutory maximum buyout.

By law, civilian agencies can offer separation incentive payments of up to $25,000.

“Due to the volume of applications and in an effort to afford all employees who applied the opportunity to receive the incentive payment, the amount approved for all applicants has changed from $25,000 to $10,000,” USDA wrote in a VSIP confirmation update given to employees.

USDA offered a VSIP to every eligible employee who applied, the department told Federal News Network Tuesday. It offered VSIPs to 43 employees at the Economic Research Service and 48 employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the department said.

“The department has made it a priority to treat all employees fairly and consistently, and offering VSIP to every employee who applied aligns with that commitment and ensures all eligible employees have access to available options,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement to Federal News Network.

The department first told employees June 13 about its plans to offer a “limited number” of Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments. Buyouts would be “based on an availability of funds and to ensure the agency maintains a critical number of employees to support the mission,” according to a June 13 memo from Willis Collie, human resources director for the research, education and economics mission area, given to ERS employees assigned to relocate.

The memo, which Federal News Network obtained, explains the application process for employees interested in pursuing a buyout or early-out.

Employees had to notify their agency by July 15 of their decision to decline the USDA relocation in order to apply for a VSIP, the department said. The period to apply for an early-out or buyout ran from July 22 through 29, according to the June memo.

Eligible employees who are approved for a VSIP have until Aug. 26 to accept the buyout.

Eligible employees who do accept can change their minds and decline the VSIP until their separation or retirement date, USDA added. Employees can also choose to change to course entirely and relocate to Kansas City at any time.

Those who accept the buyout must leave or retire from the department between Sept. 16 and 27, the last Friday before USDA’s report date in Kansas City.

The department reiterated it wasn’t required to offer VSIPs to employees who chose not to relocate to Kansas City — and that it wasn’t required to offer the maximum buyout of $25,000.

The June 13 memo given to employees mentions a maximum VSIP of $25,000 once.

“The department has made a consistent effort to give separating employees choices, including not limiting the Career Transition Assistance Program for eligible employees, offering Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments to all eligible applicants, and offering eligible employees Voluntary Early Retirement Authority,” the USDA spokesperson said.

ERS and NIFA employees who accept a buyout will give up selection priority under those career transition programs.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents both ERS and NIFA employees, bashed the $10,000 buyouts. The department should have planned and budgeted for the possibility that several dozen employees would decline the USDA relocation, AFGE National President J. David Cox said Tuesday in a statement.

According to the department’s count in mid-July, 58% of the employees at ERS who had been chosen to relocate have declined, while 67% of the selected workforce at the NIFA had also rejected USDA’s mandatory reassignments to Kansas City.

“It’s hard to imagine USDA management finding more ways to demoralize the workers at these two agencies, yet they continue to top themselves at every turn,” he said.

AFGE bargained for additional flexibilities, including telework and reasonable accommodation requests for relocating employees, in a series of negotiations earlier this month.

Democratic lawmakers have been highly critical of the USDA relocation in general. An inspector general report and subsequent legal opinion from USDA’s general counsel, which dismissed congressional attempts to block reorganizations or relocations without first gaining permission, added more fuel to the fire.

“The degree of disrespect and outright hostility this administration has demonstrated towards federal workers is alarming — first in a deliberately rushed decision to move these USDA research departments halfway across the country, then by not approving any extension requests regardless of medical necessity or family needs, and now by slashing their buyout by more than half,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) said Tuesday in a statement.

USDA employees who applied for a buyout counted on a payment worth $25,000, AFGE said.

The $25,000 buyout value has been under debate for some time. Members of Congress have tried to raise the maximum amount agencies could offer in Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments from $25,000 to $40,000 for several years, but their attempts have failed.

The Trump administration recommended raising the maximum VSIP to $40,000 in a 2017 legislative proposal, but it never made it through Congress.

Congress hasn’t adjusted the maximum VSIP payment for civilian employees since at least 2002, but lawmakers extended the authority for $40,000 buyouts to defense civilian workers in 2017.

Generally speaking, some federal employees said they’ve been hesitant to take past buyout offers and have indicated that the current $25,000 limit isn’t a large enough incentive, especially after accounting for tax deductions.

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