Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talks with reporters on the North Lawn of the White House on May 23.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talks with reporters on the North Lawn of the White House on May 23. Andrew Harnik/AP

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USDA to Seek Reduction in Force for 1,100 Employees

The Trump administration plans to close or transfer to the private sector 24 Job Corps Conservation Centers that train young people for work on public land.

The Trump administration plans to eliminate jobs for nearly 1,100 Forest Service employees who manage the agency’s 24 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, which train young people for jobs in conservation and wildland firefighting. The centers will be transferred from the Forest Service to the Labor Department, which plans to close nine of them and turn 15 over to contractors or other non-federal entities.

Forest Service officials, in a conference call with employees Friday morning, said they were notified of the plan only days ago. “This was a high-level policy decision,” Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen told employees on the call. Christiansen was clearly distressed to share what she called “very difficult news” and pledged to do all she could to support those affected.  

As the call was underway, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, whose department includes the Forest Service, formally notified Labor Secretary Alexander of USDA’s intention to transfer the centers to Labor, which runs other federal Job Corps centers. The move is part of Perdue’s efforts to reorganize and streamline operations at the department.

The Forest Service has yet to work out many details for the move. It will begin by requesting reduction in force authority from the Office of Personnel Management as early as next week so the agency can offer affected workers job placement assistance, severance pay and early retirement options. But there are many other issues to work out as well, as was clear by the questions employees raised. Those include:

  • What’s going to happen to students currently enrolled in centers slated to close?
  • How will the cuts affect wildfire response?
  • How will management of centers on Forest Service land be shifted to the private sector?
  • What will happen to employees currently in the process of relocating between facilities, some of whom have sold homes and shipped household goods?
  • How will existing construction contracts be handled where work is ongoing at some facilities?
  • Will employees be able to apply for jobs with contractors expected to take over the facilities?

“We only found out about this four days ago,” Christiansen said. “All of the processes for this transition are not where we want them to be.”  

Acting deputy chief for business operations Robert Velasco said he anticipated the process for transferring and closing the centers would take three to six months. 

The centers slated to close are in Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington, North Carolina, Oregon and two in Kentucky.

Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing Forest Service workers, said, “The Job Corps program in general receives a lot of bipartisan support in Congress, and that support certainly includes the centers operated by USDA. Eighty percent of CCC students who graduate go on to get a job, enter the military, or attend continuing education. Plus, only the [Civilian Conservation Centers] train students to serve as wild land forest firefighters to help with fire suppression operations during fire season. There is no plan for this loss of resources to the country which has seen more powerful fires with each passing year."

"This is a coordinated attack on the most vulnerable populations in the country: Rural and urban low-income young people hoping to succeed in life," said Erwin.

Forest Service officials said they expected to brief members of Congress on the plans next week. “My guess is the requests for briefings will be accelerated,” Christiansen said.

This story has been updated with a statement from the union representing Agriculture Department employees.