August 28, 2019

Va. & Md. Senators Question Decision to Reduce Payments for Employees Affected by Relocation of USDA Research Agencies

~ Express concern over rushed timelines for employees, payments $15,000 below what is standard ~ 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), along with Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-MD) asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to explain its decision to reduce payments to Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees who have declined to relocate to Kansas City following the Trump Administration’s slapdash decision to move the two key research agencies out of Washington D.C.

“We are troubled by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to lower VSIP payments by such a large amount, and we have serious concerns about the timing of this announcement and the burden it places on federal workers who have already endured significant hardship throughout this rushed relocation process,” the Senators wrote.

“This expedited timeline places an undue burden on these employees who were led to believe they would be offered buyouts at or near the federal maximum,” the Senators continued. “USDA has failed to explain why employees were not notified earlier that VSIP offers would be significantly less than $25,000, considering the agency already knew that more than half of ERS and NIFA employees had declined to relocate by the time VSIP applications were due. We are troubled that USDA did not relay this information to its employees sooner considering the impacts this decision can have on an individual’s career.”

On June 13, USDA informed ERS and NIFA employees that only a limited number of Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIPs) would be available to those who would not be relocating to the Kansas City region. Then, nearly two months later, employees found that the USDA had reduced their VSIP offers from $25,000 to $10,000, or $15,000 less than what is permitted, and often standard, under federal law. To make matters worse, employees were only given six days to accept this reduced payment, or make the life-altering decision of relocating across the country.

In their letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Senators reiterated their opposition to the proposed relocation while demanding that federal employees be treated with dignity and respect should relocation plans move forward. They also asked a series of questions, including how much USDA has budgeted for VSIP payments, why USDA was not prepared to offer the maximum buyout payment to employees, and why employees were not notified that the maximum buyout payment would be less than the federal maximum.

The Senators have been strong opponents of the USDA’s unnecessary relocation of ERS and NIFA. Earlier this year, Sens. Warner, Kaine, Cardin, and Van Hollen introduced legislation to bar the research agencies from leaving the National Capital Region. In May, they joined other members of Congress representing the National Capital Region in urging Secretary Perdue not to relocate the research agencies.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today concerning the recent issuance of Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) acceptance letters to Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees that offer $15,000 less than what is permitted under federal law and what is standard in nearly all other cases. We are troubled by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to lower VSIP payments by such a large amount, and we have serious concerns about the timing of this announcement and the burden it places on federal workers who have already endured significant hardship throughout this rushed relocation process.

On June 13, 2019, USDA informed ERS and NIFA employees that a limited number of VSIPs would be available to individuals who declined to relocate to the Kansas City Region by September 30, 2019. Employees were subsequently given a deadline of July 15, 2019 to notify USDA if they did not plan to relocate. Employees who wished to apply for buyouts were only given one week – July 22, 2019 through July 29, 2019 – to submit their applications. This is a short timeline to a make a decision like this, especially considering that employees who accept these payments cannot work for the federal government for at least five years or are forced to return this payment.

Then, on August 20, 2019, those ERS and NIFA employees who received their VSIP acceptance letters found that their payments had been reduced from $25,000 to $10,000 – a reduction of 60 percent. Applicants were given only six days to accept or decline this payment by August 26, 2019. This expedited timeline places an undue burden on these employees who were led to believe they would be offered buyouts at or near the federal maximum. Traditionally, federal employees who resign with a VSIP have received close to the maximum amount of $25,000. From Fiscal Year 2012 to May 2017, nearly 37,000 federal employees resigned with a VSIP for an average payment of $24,470.

USDA has stated that its decision to reduce the amount per VSIP was made in order to accommodate all employees who were eligible to receive the buyout. However, USDA has failed to explain why employees were not notified earlier that VSIP offers would be significantly less than $25,000, considering the agency already knew that more than half of ERS and NIFA employees had declined to relocate by the time VSIP applications were due.

We are troubled that USDA did not relay this information to its employees sooner considering the impacts this decision can have on an individual’s career.

In response to this announcement, we would like to pose the following questions regarding VSIP payments: 

How much does USDA have budgeted for VSIP payments, and from what authority?

Why was USDA not prepared to offer the maximum buyout payment or near the maximum to employees when that appears to be standard procedure among federal agencies?

Why were employees not notified ahead of the VSIP application window that the maximum buyout payment would be significantly less than the federal maximum?

As senators representing the National Capital Region, we remain opposed to this proposed relocation. However, should this process continue to move forward, we expect federal employees be treated with dignity and respect. We urge you to reconsider this decision and offer these employees the maximum VSIP payment allowable by law and extend the deadline for employees to consider these payments.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.

 

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