Senators representing states surrounding the U.S. capital called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Aug. 27 to explain not only why it decided to dramatically reduce the buyout amount offered to departing research agency employees, but also why it gave them very little time to accept that amount.
USDA announced June 13 that it planned to move its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture from their current offices in Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.
Employees that notified USDA that they would rather leave federal service than move with the agency were eligible for a voluntary separation incentive payment, which the agency initially said would be offered on a limited basis at the $25,000 maximum allowed by federal policy.
Employees had from July 22 to July 29 to notify the agency whether they planned to accept the payment, which prohibits them from working for the federal government for five years.
USDA sent employees formal documentation of their planned VSIP payments Aug. 20, at which point employees were informed that they would be receiving $10,000, rather than the $25,000 initially offered. Employees were given until Aug. 26 to notify the agency of whether they still planned to accept the lower payment.
“USDA has stated that its decision to reduce the amount per VSIP was made in order to accommodate all employees who were eligible to receive the buyout,” Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., wrote in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue.
“However, USDA has failed to explain why employees were not notified earlier that VSIP offers would be significantly less than $25,000, considering the agency already knew that more than half of ERS and NIFA employees had declined to relocate by the time VSIP applications were due. We are troubled that USDA did not relay this information to its employees sooner considering the impacts this decision can have on an individual’s career.”
The senators also questioned where the agency was getting the funds for the VSIP payments and how much total they had budgeted for those payments.
Agencies generally tend to offer the maximum allowed for VSIP payments, as the nearly 37,000 employees receiving VSIP between fiscal years 2012 and 2017 averaged $24,470 per payment.
The senators wrote that while they in general opposed the ERS and NIFA move, they at the least hope that the agency will reconsider their VSIP offers and opt to provide the maximum allowable for departing employees.
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