Employees raise concerns about USDA reorganization

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack meets resistance on overhaul. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack meets resistance on overhaul. Eugene Hoshiko/AP

A massive reorganization of a dozen offices at the Agriculture Department is facing resistance from rank-and-file employees and at least one senior-level appointee has left his job indefinitely, according to multiple sources within the department.

In October, USDA began consolidating many of its administrative and managerial functions, including procurement, information technology, human resources and finance, into a new Departmental Management Office. The move affects 2,800 employees.

Shortly after the announcement, Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed, who will run the new office, told Government Executive the plan has the support of the workforce and "the vast majority of employees feels that this was the right thing to do."

But some employees oppose the effort. In November, Evan Segal, who became chief financial officer in July, objected to the management structure during a meeting with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, according to sources whose offices are affected by the reorganization. Those sources spoke on condition they not be identified.

The 1990 Chief Financial Officers Act requires CFOs to report directly to agency secretaries. Under the terms of the reorganization, Segal would report to Reed, not Vilsack, on most issues. Vilsack told Segal he would report to the secretary for core concerns, sources said.

Segal has left his position, at least temporarily. "Mr. Segal has requested a leave of absence and he may choose to leave USDA to pursue other opportunities, but we have granted him time away to decide what he wants to do," a USDA spokesperson told Government Executive. Segal did not respond to requests for comment, and an automated reply to his USDA e-mail account said he is "out of the office and will not have regular access to this account."

Employees in the offices of Operations, Civil Rights and Human Capital Management -- now renamed the Office of Human Resource Management -- also have spoken out against the changes.

"Things are absolutely chaotic," said one veteran USDA staffer whose office is affected by the restructuring. "I lived through previous reorganizations, and they are usually clear-cut. But there is no plan in place here. It seems to change day by day." Another employee, who has been with the agency for several decades, said people are "unbelievably rattled, upset and disoriented."

Many of the loudest critics are in the Office of Human Resource Management, where all 58 employees were told on Sept. 10 that they would be redirected to other jobs and offices in the Washington area. The agency is offering voluntary early retirements and separation incentive payments to certain employees.

A document the Office of Human Resource Management handed out to employees says, "If you have not retired or resigned and you fail to report to the new position, you will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including removal."

Documents provided to Government Executive show that human resources employees have been asked to fill out self-evaluation forms and some are being told they must interview for new positions.

"Essentially, all employees would be reassigned anywhere in the commuting area to any job of management's choosing, even if it means reassigning one to a position outside his/her area of expertise or technical knowledge," about 50 USDA staffers wrote in a recent letter to senators representing Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. "It is obvious that this is a hostile act to remove a staff that is over 40, minorities, women and disabled."

The USDA spokesperson said 25 of 54 human resources employees have been matched for placement into new positions.

"We're making every effort to assist these employees during this transitional time and anticipate completing placement of the additional employees over the next few months," the spokesperson said. "We recognize that organizational changes can be challenging, and we continue to communicate that there will be no reduction in workforce associated with this change. We have also assured these employees that they are guaranteed placement within the local commuting area and at the same grade and pay."

Some USDA officials have begun referring to the reassignments as a "designer reduction in force." In some cases, reassigned employees are landing in field offices where they are at a higher grade level than co-workers who are performing identical tasks.

"It's not just uncomfortable," one employee said. "It creates cost and salary issues within an organization."

USDA staffers have complained to the House and Senate Agriculture committees. Courtney Rowe, a Senate committee spokeswoman, said Reed briefed lawmakers on the reorganization several weeks ago. Rowe said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the committee chairwoman, "wants the USDA to run as efficiently as possible."

Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, said he has heard complaints about the revamping, but also sees the reassignments of several controversial senior officials as a positive sign. "They are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together in a way that may be more functional and credible," said Lucas, who retired from the agency in 1996.

Lucas said he is taking a "wait-and-see approach" to the changes. In the interim, he urged employees to look on the bright side.

"These are tough economic times and I would like to see a reorganization where people still have jobs rather than people being fired as they might have been in another administration," he said. "Taking a job you don't like is better than not having a job at all."

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