Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speaks to reporters in December.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speaks to reporters in December. Ken Ritter / AP

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Interior Still Threatening to Deny Incentives to Employees It Has Relocated West

Employees have already decided if they will move, but Interior says a lack of additional appropriations from Congress could block promised financial assistance.

The Interior Department is still threatening to relocate employees without any incentive payments, more than a month after 160 employees had to decide if they would accept mandated reassignments with the promise of financial assistance. 

The Bureau of Land Management is still moving forward with its relocation of the agency’s headquarters and transferring of most Washington-based positions to various western locations, but has not received any additional funding from Congress for the moves. In a letter sent on New Year’s Eve to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the fiscal 2020 appropriations President Trump signed into law last month ensured “[relocation] activities continued without cessation.” 

“The act ensures we have the funds to complete relocating all positions identified,” Bernhardt said. 

Asked whether that applied to the relocation incentives worth 25% of employees’ base salaries, as well as free temporary housing in their new locations, an Interior spokesperson said the department “intends to give” impacted employees their “legally authorized compensation and incentive” but it was ultimately up to Congress “if they want to deny these benefits to our employees.” Congressional aides have told Government Executive there is no funding for BLM relocation activities in the recent appropriations measure. 

Employees had until Dec. 12 to decide if they would relocate or lose their jobs. BLM has not shared details on how many employees accepted their reassignments, despite Grijalva setting a Jan. 6 deadline for the information. To date, two employees have relocated with one more expected to move by the end of the month, according to a headquarters employee familiar with the figures. Employees who accepted their management-directed reassignments have until mid-March to report to their new duty stations. 

What also remains unclear is whether the funding standoff will affect employees accepting separation incentives from the agency. BLM received authorization to offer early retirement and buyouts of $25,000 to eligible employees. So far 19 have accepted those offers, but the Interior spokesperson would not comment on whether the agency has the funding to proceed with those payments. Dozens of additional employees have already left or are planning to leave for new jobs. 

Interior and Democratic lawmakers remain at odds over information related to the relocation. Grijalva sent a letter to Bernhardt last week demanding a full cost-benefit analysis and other documents used to justify the decision to move the headquarters and all but 60 of its Washington-based employees. In his New Year’s Eve letter, Bernhardt said he found Grijalva’s concerns “curious” since he had offered to personally brief the chairman. 

Bernhardt’s offer “is part of a pattern whereby we request data and you offer to meet for a discussion,” Grijalva said. “Your feelings about moving BLM headquarters to Colorado are clear and I do not require a meeting to discuss them. What I require is the supporting data you say you have, but will not provide.”

Interior has provided a two-page spreadsheet showing the department expects to save $13 million by 2024, but has yet to give lawmakers the detailed analysis they have requested. William Perry Pendley, the official currently serving as head of BLM, recently deployed to Grand Junction, Colorado, to stand up the new headquarters.