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USDA Slashes Buyout Payments for Scientific Agency Employees By 60% Ahead of Relocation

Employees of research agencies have less than a week to decide whether to accept $10,000 voluntary separation payments, despite being offered upwards of $25,000 in June.

The Agriculture Department this week informed employees at two scientific agencies who applied for buyouts following their decision not to relocate to Kansas City that they would receive significantly less money than originally promised.

In June, USDA officials told employees at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture that it would offer “a limited number” of Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments to those who declined to move to Kansas City by the end of September. VSIP payments would be capped at $25,000, the maximum allowed by law, the department said in a memo.

When employees accept buyouts, they receive a lump sum equal to the amount offered by the agency, or their total severance pay, whichever is less. Additionally, employees who accept buyouts cannot work for the federal government for at least five years, or they will be required to repay the government the entire amount of their VSIP payment.

But this week, the department sent employees their VSIP acceptance letters, which noted that the maximum buyout payment would be only $10,000, a 60% cut from what was initially offered. Employees have until August 26 to decide whether to accept the buyout.

Due to the volume of applications and in an effort to afford all employees who applied the opportunity to receive the incentive payment, the amount provided for all applicants has changed from $25,000 to $10,000, USDA wrote.

ERS and NIFA employees had until July 15 to tell the department their initial intentions regarding whether they would agree to relocate to Kansas City, although they have until the end of September to make a final decision. Employees interested in early retirement or buyout payments were required to apply between July 22 and July 29.

It is unclear why the department did not announce a decrease in the maximum buyout payment ahead of that window, given that officials knew that more than half of ERS and NIFA employees already either declined to relocate or did not respond to their relocation orders.

An Agriculture Department spokesperson told Government Executive that the department decided it would be more equitable to allow all employees who applied to receive a buyout, rather than offering a larger sum to fewer people on a first-come first-served basis.

“The department maintained we would offer a limited amount of VSIPs and ultimately decided to offer a VSIP to every employee who applied and were found to be eligible to receive a VSIP,” the spokesperson said.

The department did not answer questions about how much was budgeted for VERA and VSIP, when it realized the volume of buyouts would be higher than could be accommodated at the $25,000 level, or why officials did not inform employees until this week.

The spokesperson said that although the VSIP acceptance form is due on August 26, employees can change their mind “and decline the VSIP payment up until their separation or retirement date.” Employees also are still able to change their mind and accept relocation orders.

In a statement, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox, whose union represents ERS and NIFA workers, sharply criticized the department’s handling of buyout payments. The department’s VSIP process began prior to USDA’s recognition of the agencies’s bargaining units and thus was not part of the agreement reached between the parties earlier this month to ease the impacts of the planned relocation.

“It’s no secret that employees are extremely upset by USDA’s decision to relocate these two agencies halfway across the country,” Cox said. “Two-thirds of employees rejected the agency’s orders to move by Sept. 30, so USDA should have planned better for that reality and budgeted accordingly. Employees now have less than a week to decide whether to accept the reduced buyout, which also bars them from working at another federal agency for five years. Many of these employees have spent their careers devoted to agricultural research and furthering their agencies’s missions, and they deserve to be treated better than this.”