USDA considers rehiring retirees to fill relocation-related workforce gaps

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The Agriculture Department is exploring whether it can rehire former employees  to return to work for the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to supplement potential workforce gaps this fall.

Both bureaus are expected to lose significant portions of their workforces in the coming month, as ERS and NIFA relocate their headquarters to Kansas City by Sept. 30. Employees must accept mandatory reassignments to Kansas City or will lose their current jobs.

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An ERS retiree, who asked to remain anonymous, received a call from a former agency supervisor last week. The supervisor wanted to know whether the retiree would consider returning to ERS as a part-time reemployed annuitant, the ERS retiree told Federal News Network.

At least two current employees at ERS and NIFA also said their supervisors were planning to approach retirees to gauge their interest in returning to their agencies.

“Utilizing reemployed annuitants is one component of the department’s long term strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work,” a USDA spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network.

The department didn’t provide more details about the potential arrangement with ERS or NIFA annuitants.

According to the ERS retiree, former employees who agreed to return to the agency would receive the same rate of pay they had received whenever they left the agency. Reemployed annuitants would work for 20 hours a week in USDA’s South Building in Washington, D.C., through the end of the year, the retiree said. Annuitants would be allowed to telework starting in 2020.

It’s unclear at this point exactly how many current ERS and NIFA employees are leaving, but the two bureaus stand to lose a significant portion of the workforces.

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.

USDA has said ERS and NIFA employees can change their minds and choose to relocate at any point until Sept. 27, the last Friday before the department’s report-date to Kansas City.

In addition, USDA told Federal News Network last week it had offered buyout payments of $10,000 to 43 ERS and 48 NIFA employees. These employees can decline USDA’s Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) offers, especially if they’re eligible for priority selection for other positions at USDA or another agency under the Career Transition Assistance Program.

The department has told Congress it expected and planned for attrition as a result of the USDA relocation.

But Steve Crutchfield, a former ERS assistant administrator who retired from the agency back in 2016, said these employees will be difficult to replace — both with reemployed annuitants and young graduates fresh out of school.

Many ERS employees have worked at the agency for decades, and people tended to stay, he said.

Hiring back former employees as reemployed annuitants could help the agency perform the tasks of employees who are leaving ERS, but Crutchfield questioned how much of an impact these rehires could have on the agency working 20 hours a week.

And while retirees will likely still have the contacts and expertise they had from their previous days on the job at ERS, their knowledge of specific poultry markets, for example, may not be up to date, he added.

As assistant administrator, Crutchfield often relied on ERS experts to help inform responses to Congress, for example, on a specific topic.

“If I didn’t have the experts I relied on to give me the quick information I needed, it would be more difficult to do my job,” he said.

Crutchfield, who worked for the Economic Research Service for about 30 years, said he hasn’t been asked to return to the agency as a reemployed annuitant. He moved to Seattle and doubted ERS management would consider him as an option to come back.

Though ERS often scored well on the governmentwide employee engagement surveys and Crutchfield described the agency as a “fabulous place to work,” he doubted he and his fellow retirees would jump at the opportunity to return to the bureau today.

“It sounds like a grim place to be now,” said Crutchfield, who visited ERS during a trip back to Washington in June. “The morale just at rock bottom. People were discouraged, depressed and uncertain about the future.”

Generally speaking, reeemployed annuitants receive their Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) annuities and, at the same, a paycheck as a federal employee, which is often offset by the amount of the annuity.

Agencies, however, can waive this salary offset requirement for reemployed annuitants. The Office of Personnel Management previously granted dual compensation waivers if an agency had demonstrated it had severe recruiting challenges, a need for emergency hiring, a need to retain a specific individual or some other unusual circumstances.

Congress back in 2014 gave agency heads the authority to grant dual compensation waivers on their own to reeemployed annuitants who work about 20 hours a week

The authority expires Dec. 31, 2019, according to OPM.

Crutchfield said he didn’t remember widespread hiring of reemployed annuitants at ERS or USDA during his tenure, and there is little public data on how many reemployed annuitants agencies have hired in recent years.

The Government Accountability Office in 2014 last counted the number of governmentwide reemployed annuitants at roughly 171,000 people, up from 95,000 employees in fiscal 2004. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs accounted for the majority of reemployed annuitants in 2013. The remaining 21 Chief Financial Officers Act agencies, which includes USDA, also saw an increase in the number of reemployed annuitants between 2004 and 2013, GAO said.

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