USDA to debut pay-for-performance project

A Montana meat processing plant worker examines beef approved by USDA inspectors. A Montana meat processing plant worker examines beef approved by USDA inspectors. Lisa Hornstein/AP
Citing pressing workforce recruitment issues, the Agriculture Department on Wednesday said it will launch a five-year pay-for-performance demonstration project covering 2,900 nonbargaining unit employees in the Food Safety Inspection Service in July.

"Through the demonstration project, FSIS will be able to take a proactive role in finding solutions to … attract the best qualified candidates and to retain and motivate its current workforce," FSIS wrote in a Federal Register notice finalizing the program, which was announced in May.

FSIS noted shortages of public health veterinarians and scientists, and said the average age of its mission-critical employees ranges from 50 to 53, depending on the occupation. The agency is spending more than $1 million annually on recruitment and retention incentives, but said these efforts have not been adequate.

Employees in the demonstration project will move from the Grade 15 General Schedule system to a series of six broad paybands. Those rated "fully successful" or better during the evaluations process will receive performance-based pay increases.

The service stated repeatedly in the Federal Register notice that all raises should be performance based.

"FSIS believes that in order to fully test a pay-for-performance system and promote a performance culture, all pay increases should be tied to performance," the regulation stated. "Employees [placed in the lowest categories of "unacceptable" or "marginal"] will not lose pay, but rather will not receive a pay increase. That is, the employee's base salary will be reduced to offset any locality pay increase."

If weak performers improve to "fully successful" or higher the year after they receive the poor rating, their raise will be based on what their pay had been without the locality pay offset, rewarding them extra for their gains.

Employees at the top of their paybands who are rated "outstanding" will be eligible for an increase of up to 5 percent from the maximum salary in the payband. Those at the top of the band who are rated "fully successful" or "superior" will receive their performance award as a lump sum rather than as a salary increase.

Ratings will be based on an "employee accomplishment report" written by the worker and a "supervisory rating justification." That rating recommendation will be reviewed by another supervisor and presented to a pay pool panel. Employees who receive low ratings will be given written notification and will be allowed to ask a different supervisor to review the marks.

Supervisors and managers will be required to undergo training for the system and will be evaluated partly based on the performance of their employees. And the service is providing classroom instruction, written and CD guides, and online training to help employees write their accomplishment reports.

Senior executives and bargaining unit employees will not be included in the demonstration project.

Agency officials rejected the idea of including longevity pay in the demonstration project.

"FSIS believes that length of services is not as critical as the employee's performance and their contribution to the mission of the agency," the notice stated. "The demonstration project is designed to recognize and retain these experienced high-performers by providing more meaningful increases."

The service acknowledged that it will be difficult to ensure that the new system is fair and credible.

"Perhaps the biggest challenge the agency faces is earning and keeping the trust of its employees during this time of profound change, while ensuring that the demonstration project is not a disincentive," FSIS wrote.

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