So far just two employees have agreed to move from Washington headquarters to new locations in western states.
The Bureau of Land Management is internally promoting its efforts to assist employees who will soon be out of jobs after the agency fires them for refusing to move across the country, as signs show few workers have accepted the reassignment.
About 160 employees at the Washington headquarters of the Interior Department bureau had until Thursday to notify management if they would accept the directed relocation to one of several offices in western states. Derrick Henry, a BLM spokesman, declined to say how many agreed to move, explaining it would “take time to have an accurate count of how many employees accepted and how many declined.”
Those who rejected the offer will eventually lose their jobs as BLM moves its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado. The agency issued official management directed reassignment letters to impacted employees on Nov. 12 and gave them 30 days to respond. To date, only two employees have already relocated, according to an email William Perry Pendley, who is currently serving as the bureau’s acting director, sent to employees Thursday and obtained by Government Executive. Employees who accepted their reassignments now have 90 days to report to their new duty stations.
Pendley added that 30 employees who already rejected the reassignments found new jobs elsewhere within Interior. He stressed that BLM is making significant efforts to accommodate those poised to lose their jobs, such as notifying them of openings at the department five days before they go public.
“I have been working individually with the department's senior leadership to make sure that BLM employees have a fair shot at any postings that are available,” Pendley said. He urged employees to “check on the status” of 21 BLM positions that will remain in the Washington area.
He explained that those fired after rejecting the relocation will have priority placement for future openings after joining the career transition assistance plan. BLM has created a support team to offer career counseling, resume writing assistance and interview workshops.
“For those of you who are not relocating, we understand the difficulty of your decisions and I sincerely hope you will avail yourself of all the services that we are providing,” Pendley said.
After receiving approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, BLM is also offering impacted employees early retirement and buyouts. Employees have until until Jan. 17 to accept the offers and Jan. 30 to leave, according to an offer letter also obtained by Government Executive. Accepted offers will go to Pendley for final approval. Buyouts will be worth the statutory maximum of $25,000.
BLM stakeholders and employees expect very few employees to relocate. One Washington staffer told Government Executive just three of the 25 employees on their team have accepted the reassignment. Another former employee who has since left the agency for a new job but still keeps in touch with many former colleagues said they only know of two who agreed to move. Henri Bisson, former BLM deputy director, predicted on Wednesday based on his conversations with current employees the acceptance rate could be as low as 15%.
“Of all the resources we are entrusted to manage, the most valuable resource the BLM has is our dedicated, knowledgeable workforce,” said Henry, the BLM spokesman. “While we hope all affected employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations, we understand that the decision for most people has many factors. We are committed to making sure that all employees have the information and resources they need to make the best decision and we will continue to work with employees to ease the transition."
Interior has said it would provide employees who agree to move 25% of their base salaries, as well as free temporary housing in their new locations, but subsequently threatened to withdraw those perks if Congress blocks funding. Lawmakers this week were still pushing for appropriators to intervene and resist the relocation, but said they were willing to provide funding in exchange for more information they say will enable proper oversight. The details of the Interior’s fiscal 2020 funding are expected with the rest of the line-by-line appropriations next week.
Lawmakers said they were hesitant to insert language into that bill that could prevent employees from receiving relocation or separation incentives.
BLM employees have told Government Executive that even some of those who have accepted their reassignments are still looking for jobs in Washington and will come back home as soon as possible. Many employees have already found new jobs and left the agency. The workers all suggested morale at the Washington office has plummeted, mistrust of leadership has grown and a sinking feeling that the Trump administration is seeking to sideline important work has set in.
Interior has defended the move by highlighting that nearly all of the land BLM manages is in western states, so it makes sense for the decision-makers to be there too. 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. Employees and other critics of the plan, however, have noted that about 97% of BLM’s workforce is already located in the western United States. Relocating employees out of Washington will make enforcement actions carry less weight, they said, and reduce the influence BLM has within Interior and the rest of the administration.
The Government Accountability Office is reviewing the relocation effort and the House Natural Resources Committee in January will issue subpoenas for documents underlying BLM’s decision, which lawmakers say the agency has so far withheld.