Chief of the Forest Service, Victoria "Vicki" Christiansen visits the Schenck Job Corps Center in September 2018.

Chief of the Forest Service, Victoria "Vicki" Christiansen visits the Schenck Job Corps Center in September 2018. Marvin Ramsey/Forest Service

Early Retirement, Severance Options Unclear for Forest Service Workers Facing Layoffs

The decision to eliminate 1,100 Forest Service jobs by Sept. 30 leaves a lot of unanswered questions for employees.

Nearly a week after the Forest Service told 1,065 employees their jobs would be terminated later this year, federal workers are still waiting to learn what, if any, their options are for early retirement, severance pay or job placement elsewhere in government.

The employees at the agency’s Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers learned during a conference call on May 24 that the Agriculture Department, the Forest Service’s parent organization, planned to transfer the centers to the Labor Department by the end of September.

While Labor runs the Jobs Corps program nationwide, the Forest Service has operated the Civilian Conservation Centers for decades under an interagency agreement with the department. Labor said it plans to close nine of the centers, which train young people for jobs in conservation and wildland firefighting, and contract out the work at the 15 remaining centers.

In the call with affected workers, Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen said the agency would seek reduction in force authority from the Office of Personnel Management so it can offer affected workers job placement assistance, severance pay or early retirement options. She reiterated that commitment in a memo to all employees Friday, when she wrote, “We will need to permanently transition the Forest Service Job Corps workforce and will seek reduction in force authority to do so.”

But in response to Christiansen’s comments reported previously, an OPM spokesperson contacted Government Executive to say, “OPM is not involved in, nor do we approve, agency RIF actions. Agencies are responsible for determining whether a RIF is necessary, and if so, carrying out a RIF in their agency.”

OPM’s website, however, states, “An agency must request [Voluntary Early Retirement Authority] and receive approval from the Office of Personnel Management before the agency may offer early retirement to its employees. It also notes:

“The Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment Authority, also known as buyout authority, allows agencies that are downsizing or restructuring to offer employees lump-sum payments up to $25,000 as an incentive to voluntarily separate. When authorized by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), an agency may offer VSIP to employees who are in surplus positions or have skills that are no longer needed in the workforce who volunteer to separate by resignation, optional retirement, or by voluntary early retirement, if approved.”

So what does this mean for employees? Will they be offered early retirement or severance payments? It’s not clear at this time. The Forest Service public affairs office referred a reporter’s questions to the Agriculture Department, which in turn referred questions to Labor. Neither department responded to requests for information about early retirement, severance pay or job placement options for employees.

In a letter last week to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said USDA’s decision to end its role in the Job Corps program was part of a broader effort to streamline operations at the department: “As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative that the Forest Service focus on and prioritize our core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our nation's forests, and step away from activities and programs that are not essential to that core mission.”

According to a Labor spokesperson, "At the vast majority of Forest Service Job Corps centers, student services will continue without interruption." Labor will contract out the work in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which means contract awards will likely be made next year.

The decision to close specific centers was "made carefully with an eye on past performance, efficiency, and student access," the spokesperson said. "Deactivations do not represent a diminution of the program, but rather a long-term enhancement of it, as they will lead to a higher-performing, more efficient program." At the centers slated to close, "new student enrollment will cease and existing students will have an opportunity to complete their education and skill instruction," the spokesperson said.  

The transition of the centers to Labor is expected to be completed by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. On Thursday, Labor published a notice in the Federal Register requesting comment on its decision to close nine of the Civilian Conservation Centers. The comment period will be open for 30 days.

Transfer Was Long Planned

The Trump administration first announced its intention to transfer the Forest Service-run Job Corps centers in its 2019 budget proposal, released in February 2018. In the Labor Department funding section, it wrote:

“The Budget takes aggressive steps to improve Job Corps for the youth it serves by: closing centers that do a poor job educating and preparing students for jobs; focusing the program on the older youth for whom the program is more effective; improving center safety; and making other changes to sharpen program quality and efficiency. As part of this reform effort, the budget ends the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) role in the program, unifying responsibility in DOL. Workforce development is not a core USDA role, and the 26 centers it operates are overrepresented in the lowest performing cohort of centers.”

But the union that represents Forest Service personnel vehemently disputes the assertion that the CCC’s are underperforming: “As shown by [Labor’s] own data, this is false,” the National Federal of Federal Employees wrote in a special report shortly after the administration released its 2019 budget proposal. Citing Labor Department data from 2017, the union noted that the Forest Service centers were actually underrepresented in the lowest-performing quartile—not overrepresented as claimed in the administration’s budget justification—and include the highest-performing centers in the country.

“In addition, a recent [Labor Department] analysis shows that [the Forest Service’s Civilian Conservation Centers] are substantially more cost effective than comparable centers run by private contractors,” the report found.

The union acknowledged that an analysis of Job Corps centers in 2014 showed the CCCs were substantially underperforming, but said the Forest Service took steps to turn the centers around and hold leaders accountable for performance.

“The results were striking,” the report found. One of the centers, Blackwell CCC in Laona, Wisconsin, was ranked 124th out of 125 total Job Corps centers in 2014, but by 2017 had risen to 19th. Another center, Oconaluftee CCC in Cherokee, North Carolina, went from 119th in 2014 to 21st in 2017. Both of those centers are now slated for closure.   

This story has been updated with comment from the Labor Department.