Department officials say July 15 was the hard and fast deadline to accept reassignments, despite previously indicating there was wiggle room until September.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week told a Democratic senator that the deadline earlier this month for Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture workers to accept or decline reassignments to Kansas City was not extended past July 15 in most cases, directly contradicting his own previous statements and those of department spokespeople.
The apparent discrepancy between the department’s policy and what officials told both reporters and employees could mean that more than 250 workers at ERS and NIFA will be out of a job in October, whether they like it or not. And union officials said that while the American Federation of Government Employees reached a tentative agreement with agency officials to provide telework and relocation incentives to those who agree to move, the agency backed out of a meeting to sign the agreement at the last minute.
Earlier this month, a USDA spokesperson told Government Executive that although a majority of employees of the science agencies either declined or failed to respond to their reassignment orders by the July 15 deadline, the department expected the number of acceptances to “fluctuate” between now and Sept. 30, “as employees are free to change their status until that date.”
Additionally, an internal FAQ sent to agency employees dated July 2019 indicated that employees had until September to make their final decisions.
"Employees can change their minds regarding their decision up until the Friday before the report date but should be aware of possible consequences," the document stated. "Employees changing their minds from a yes to a no will go through the adverse actions procedures beginning with the proposal to remove letter."
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that Perdue reiterated that policy to him in a phone conversation on July 16, and agreed to consider allowing a transition period of full-time telework. But in a July 24 letter to the senator, Perdue walked both of those commitments back.
“The July 15, 2019 deadline was for employees to respond to the directed reassignment and that deadline did not get extended,” Perdue wrote. “The agency is considering, on a case-by-case basis, requests for extensions on the basis of hardship that were received by the July 15, 2019, deadline.”
The Agriculture Department did not respond to a request for comment explaining this discrepancy.
Further complicating matters, the agency has apparently reneged on a tentative agreement to provide a transition period of telework and relocation incentives to encourage employees currently on the fence to accept the reassignment to Kansas City.
Peter Winch, special assistant to the national vice president of AFGE, who has been in negotiations on behalf of research agency employees since they voted to unionize earlier this year, said that AFGE reached a tentative agreement on July 24 with management, including acting ERS Administrator Ephraim Leibtag, to request the authority to offer a transition period of full-time telework to workers who accept their reassignment orders, as well as provide relocation incentives equivalent to one month’s salary.
But the next day, when the parties were expected to formally sign the agreement, management officials cancelled, saying they had been called into meetings.
“They said they’d do some edits, make some technical changes and run it up the food chain, but since then it’s been radio silence,” Winch said. “The meetings with ERS [negotiators] were very cordial, but I guess the most polite word I can use to describe it now is ‘inconclusive.’ ”
The tentative agreement also included language that would have codified the department’s decision to allow employees until Sept. 30 to make their final decision on whether to relocate.
“Now that Kansas City is the location, although they don’t know whether it will be in Kansas or Missouri, we wanted to reaffirm that [employees] could change their minds,” Winch said. “What we agreed to, especially the one month’s salary bonus for relocation, that might affect people’s decision-making.”
The next meeting between the Agriculture Department and AFGE is scheduled for Aug. 8. But Winch said that even if the department affirms the terms of the tentative agreement at that meeting, it will be a moot point. Employees considering whether to relocate have a July 31 deadline to express their interest in jobs elsewhere in the department under priority hiring, and an Aug. 9 deadline to submit their resume.
“I’ve told them that [regarding the Aug. 6 meeting], at that point it wouldn’t make much difference if we met, because there’s a hard deadline of July 31,” Winch said. “Ephraim Leibtag was there, and he agreed to all the terms. We spent two days bargaining this thing, and they had plenty of time to review our initial proposals. In ordinary circumstances, I’d say this was bad faith bargaining, and it meets the definition of bad faith bargaining. But at this point, my recourse is very limited.”
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