"We're losing people every day," one employee says.
When you have to take care of your mother with Alzheimer’s, it is difficult to move across the country for a job.
That is why one Bureau of Land Management employee, who has worked in the federal government for more than two decades, is not planning to accept her agency’s mandate that she move to Arizona. In the coming days, BLM will send out “management-directed relocation” notices to most of its Washington, D.C.-based staff, as it moves its headquarters to Colorado and shifts hundreds of other employees from the capital to state offices.
“We have children here,” said the employee. “Our roots are here. We can't move because we grew up here. This is our home.”
The employee echoed the sentiments from several BLM employees who spoke to Government Executive on the condition of anonymity due to a fear of retaliation by the agency. The employees, all of whom already have plans to leave or are in the process of finding a new job, said they know of few colleagues who plan to accept their mandated relocations. Even some of those who will agree to move will do so only until they can find another job in D.C. and move back. They all lamented plummeting morale, a mistrust of leadership and a growing fear their work is, in reality, being removed rather than simply moved.
Employees in the roughly 250 positions BLM is moving out of Washington and into western states are waiting to hear more details about their options. Agency officials have told the workers they have sought authority to offer buyouts and early retirement to those who do not accept their relocation, according to several employees, but are still waiting for final approval from the Office of Personnel Management. Derrick Henry, a BLM spokesman, said the agency received sign off from OPM and the Office of Management and Budget and will notify employees of their eligibility and hold information sessions in the coming weeks. Under current law, agencies can offer buyouts of up to $25,000. The Interior Department previously said it would provide employees who agree to move 25% of their base salaries as an incentive, as well as free temporary housing in their new locations, but has subsequently threatened to withdraw those perks due to a lack of funding.
“It’s unfolding like a soap opera,” said one BLM employee who has already found another federal job and will soon leave the agency, bemoaning, along with several colleagues, a lack of clear and consistent communication from management.
He said he considers himself lucky, as he has worked in a job with transferable skills. Some of his colleagues cannot say the same and are considering applying to positions at a lower pay grade than their current positions.
“Unless they have the same program somewhere else, and it’s in demand right now, it’s going to be very difficult to find jobs,” he said. “When I speak to them, I almost feel a little guilty.”
The employee caring for her mother has sent out more than 30 applications. She is willing to do “whatever it takes” to find new work in the Washington area and stay with her family.
All of the employees heading for the exits that Government Executive spoke to said they had no plans to leave the agency before the relocation news hit.
“I really enjoy my job,” said a third employee who has already found another government position in Washington. “It’s important for the public. I would not be leaving if not for this.”
That staffer, and many of her colleagues, came to D.C. for personal reasons after a career in the field. Now her life is in Washington. She said she knows of very few employees who plan to accept the relocation and even some unaffected by the move who are so frustrated by the process and disruption that they too are leaving. BLM is leaving behind several dozen employees in D.C. whose work ties back directly to the capital, as well as those in its regional Eastern States office.
“It’s very sad,” she said. “It’s a huge loss of a talented, dedicated workforce.”
“We’re losing people every day,” another employee said.
BLM said it does not yet have an estimate for how many people will end up leaving the agency.
“We sincerely hope employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations but there are many factors that an individual may consider when deciding whether or not to relocate, so, it’s difficult to say at this time exactly how many people will choose to relocate,” Henry said.
Walking through the hallways of BLM headquarters can itself be a harrowing experience. Employees share the latest gossip and tidbits delivered from their division chiefs, discuss the latest person to leave the agency or generally commiserate about their circumstances. Workers are taking mental health days to deal with the fallout from the move and those who leave request their coworkers dispense with the normal farewell party, with one employee describing the sentiment as, “Screw them...We’re gone. Bye.”
“In 30 years in federal government, I’ve never seen people with lower morale,” an employee said. Workers have gone through various stages of denial, anger, disillusionment, and now, finally, resignation: “Ok, I guess it’s happening,” she said, explaining the mood of her coworkers. “What am I going to do?”
Other employees said the anger has not yet dissipated.
“The morale sucks,” the worker said. “People don’t even want to come into work anymore, that’s how bad it is.”
Motives and Impact
Among the gossip that gets shared back and forth is why BLM is going through this process. The official line has remained consistent since then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke first floated moving bureaus west: Nearly all of the land BLM manages is in western states, so it makes sense for the decision-makers to be there too (already, about 97% of BLM’s workforce is located in the western United States). Additionally, Trump administration officials have said, the move will lower lease payments, reduce travel costs and generate savings by paying employees smaller cost-of-living locality rates.
Earlier this month, however, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney suggested the administration was pursuing agency relocations—the Agriculture Department is also in the process of moving two components to Kansas City—as a means to slash federal jobs. Mulvaney said it was “nearly impossible” to fire federal employees, but forcing them to move “outside the bubble” and into “the real part of this country” is a good way to get them to quit.
To some BLM employees, this reflected the true motivations underlying the decision. While BLM’s current top executive told Congress the relocations are not intended to “drain the swamp,” the employees see the moves as a means to reduce enforcement of federal land management laws. When employees working on National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act issues are dispersed to state offices, they fear their actions and input will not carry the same weight as they would coming from a Washington headquarters.
"If you connect all the dots," an employee said of those the agency is relocating, "these are the people who help BLM implement policy nationwide. These are the folks BLM is getting rid of." She added, “When you scatter them to the winds, demote them from national staff to state office or field staff, take away the things they were working on…It’s obvious they’re trying to make them go away.”
Another worker described the institutional knowledge that is soon going to walk out the door as employees continue to leave.
“People will leave and nobody will know how to do things,” said the employee, who plans to retire at the end of the year. The agency, he said, does not have processes in place to capture that knowledge before employees leave. “There are things—we just don’t know what it’s going to be before they walk through the door because we’re probably not thinking about it right now.”
All of this has created a disconnect between the agency’s career workforce and its political leadership.
“There’s absolutely no trust with the politicals,” that same employee said. “There’s no trust there.” Going forward, he added, BLM is “isolating our highest leadership in Grand Junction,” referring to the small city in western Colorado that will house the new headquarters and its 27 slotted employees. “There is absolutely no way to justify that on an operational basis.”
Another employee said BLM leadership has failed to show any compassion.
“They are uprooting our lives as if we were pawns,” the worker said.
In early October, BLM sent impacted employees an email laying out the details of their relocation. It offered some help, such as resume writing assistance and counseling. The agency has held multiple all-hand meetings, but those have only rankled employees as political leaders dismissed concerns through platitudes about efficiency and effectiveness. The workers now await their official notices—employees were told those would come next week, but BLM said it is still sorting out the timing—which will give employees 30 days to accept their offers and an additional 90 to report to their new duty stations. Those who refuse the move will be placed into a termination process.
“The quality of the important work the BLM does for the nation is due entirely to the dedicated, highly professional women and men who work for the organization, both in D.C. and in the field,” said Henry, the BLM spokesman. He suggested the openings that result from employees declining to relocate will open opportunities for promotions for those already in the field.
While D.C.-based employees are downtrodden and distracted by pressing issues such as job searches or home sales, they are continuing to do their jobs.
“The employees that are here are still focused on getting things done,” the retiring employee said. “They are dedicated and committed to their work.”
He is just not sure how much longer they will be able to do it.
“All the employees know [the relocation] is not in any way to make the BLM more effective,” he said. “It’s to destroy it.”