Agriculture Department offers buyouts, early outs

The Agriculture Department is offering early outs to most employees and buyouts for 544 positions, joining a growing list of federal agencies that are trying to reshape their workforce in an austere budget environment.

The department received approval on May 13 from the Office of Personnel Management to offer voluntary separation and retirement packages to certain agency workers, according to information on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's website. A union representative for the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals confirmed the department offered early outs to some employees of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Federal News Radio first reported the buyout options at Agriculture.

All department employees are eligible for an early out except positions with direct-hiring authority. The window for applying for an early out runs from June 1 through Aug. 30, and the effective date for retirement must be no later than Oct. 3. Certain APHIS employees within the Wildlife Services, and Plant Protection and Quarantine workers in Hawaii, are eligible for a separate, limited buyout offer. The Agricultural Research Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service also are offering buyouts for certain jobs affected by specific earmark reductions and program eliminations.

"To assist agencies in addressing these current and upcoming budget reductions [in fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2012], the secretary is making available a variety of tools to minimize the impact on our employees and ensure equitable treatment among those involved," said a letter from Sharon Coursey, director of human resources marketing and regulatory programs, to APHIS employees.

The department also sent notification letters about early-out options to employees of the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.

While both are voluntary, buyouts and early outs are different. To be eligible for a Voluntary Early Retirement Authorization (early out), employees must have 20 years of service and be at least 50 years of age, or have at least 25 years of service -- this applies to those covered under the Civil Service Retirement System or the Federal Employees Retirement System. CSRS employees younger than 55 face a 2 percent penalty, but can earn cost-of-living adjustments upon retirement. FERS employees won't get dinged on their pensions, but in most cases they will not receive COLA benefits until age 62. Buyouts, or Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments, are cash incentives of up to $25,000 for employees and can be offered along with an early out.

Matt Herrick, press secretary at USDA, called the buyouts and early outs a "proactive approach" to avoid an adverse effect on the workforce.

Stan Painter, an FSIS consumer safety inspector in Alabama and the chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, doesn't think most FSIS employees will take the early-out option, even though "it is not a proud time to be a federal employee." Painter, who has been with the agency for 26 years, lamented the current environment for federal employees, saying he has never seen such an "all-out assault" on government workers emanating from Washington.

"When I first came into the agency, people would ask, 'What do you do?,' I said, -- and still say - 'I work for you, I work for the people,' " Painter said. "We work for the people, but you know it's certainly changed in the time period I have been here, and not for the better. It's more like change we can't freaking believe," he added, a play on President Obama's popular 2008 presidential campaign slogan, Change We Can Believe In.

Other agencies in the federal government are offering voluntary separation packages, including the U.S. Postal Service and the Smithsonian Institution. In March, the Postal Service announced its plan to offer $20,000 in retirement incentives to eligible employees as part of its plan to cut 7,500 administrative jobs. The Air Force Materiel Command began surveying its civilian workforce in May to gauge interest in potential buyouts.

More departments and agencies are likely to seek authority from OPM to offer buyouts and early outs in the current budget-conscious climate, according to Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association. "This is likely the start of a trend throughout government, one that will spell disaster without proper succession planning," she said.

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