Clint Bain and Neil BurnetteLegislative Co-Chairs Hunter Moorhead, Legislative Consultant
On August 8th, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) that defers the payroll tax (OASDI deductions) from September 1 to December 31. The President’s actions define eligibility as employees earning less than $100,000 per year. Following the announcement, both government and private sector employees have questioned the benefit of deferring payroll taxes. As of today, employees and employers expect the tax will be collected next calendar year.
For those impacted, this opportunity will lead to higher take-home pay. Critics of the tax deferral have said that it simply amounts to pushing off the taxes into early next year—when employees may have forgotten that they are required to repay the benefit. IRS guidance issued last week states that affected employees will have to repay the suspended payments by April 30, 2021—although there will be no interest or penalties charged for repaying on time—unless Congress waives the obligation.
For now, our NASCOE family needs to plan appropriately assuming the short-term tax benefit will be repaid next year.
Can federal employees opt out of the deferral? The National Finance Center (NFC) released information announcing system modifications to the payroll system effective for pay period 17. The Department has indicated that they are currently researching the possibility of employees having the option to opt out. We expect FSA employees to see the additional funds in their bank account when pay period 17 is disbursed. The elimination of the withholding will vary by employee by PP, based upon any changes in their gross social security wages.
Do we expect Congress will approve legislation waiving repayment of the deferred taxes? Trump’s memo anticipated that the obligation would be waived, but there has been strong bipartisan opposition in Congress toward a waiver and no move toward it.
The NASCOE legislative team will monitor any movement of legislation by Congress regarding this tax deferral.
Recently NASCOE leadership has been answering lots of questions about paid parental leave and the applicability of that benefit for FSA County Office (CO) employees. The National Defense Authorization Act (Bill S-1790) which funded parts of the federal government for fiscal year 2020 was recently passed and provides up to 12 weeks per 12-month period of paid parental leave available under the Family and Medical Leave Act for Federal employees. This new leave is effective for births, adoptions or foster placements beginning October 1st of this year. Unfortunately, this legislation did not extend the entitlement benefit to include FSA CO personnel. Specifically, the employees hired and supervised by County Committees established under Section 590h(b) of Title 16.
Many of the recent Paid Parental Leave questions received by NASCOE leadership center around why FSA CO employees aren’t included in the benefit. The answer to that question is best explained by the background of the County Committee and the origins of NASCOE.
Historically, the civil service was created in the late 1800’s to staff agencies newly created by Congress. These employees now go by the nomenclature Federal, General Schedule (GS), or Title 5 employees. Later, during the depression, when creating new farm and food security legislation, Congress was looking for an alternative to the typical federal program delivery system. Congress wanted a new delivery method which provided a system of local credibility so that farmers and ranchers would “buy-in” to new agricultural support programs. To that end, Congress created the County Committee (COC) system, designed to be an alternative system of government that farmers and ranchers could trust. Legislation also allowed those same COC’s to hire staff, which includes the modern day CED and PT. COC’s and their staff are considered Title 7, County Office (CO), or non-Federal employees, who are governed by the Department of Agriculture and not the Office of Personnel Management.
CO and GS employees, working side by side in USDA Service Centers, have many things in common including pay scales, leave earning, health/life insurance, work schedules, and more. In recent memory, USDA has generally mirrored CO benefits to match the guidance that OPM gives for GS employees. However, this hasn’t always been the case. For much of our history, USDA GS employees who offered conservation and credit programs enjoyed salary, health, and retirement benefits while CO employees down the hall were working for a minimum wage with no benefits. This was obviously a major disparity between two groups of employees who perform similar work for the same customer base.
In 1959, to correct the inequity of benefits, our predecessor CO employees voluntarily banded together to create NASCOE. NASCOE is designed to improve working conditions and advocate for the profession of the CO employee. Throughout its history, NASCOE has been responsible for obtaining and ensuring the continuation of annual leave, sick leave, health insurance, retirement, relocation benefits, within grade increases, annual cost of living adjustments, leave transfer & and other benefits for FSA CO employees. NASCOE also works annually to obtain adequate levels of funding for agency salaries and expenses. These benefits and supplemental funding have been attained through NASCOE working directly with USDA or the Congress. In the spirit of equality, USDA and the Congress has answered previous requests by granting requested benefits to FSA CO employees. Added benefits for CO employees are greatly enjoyed by the FSA non-federal workforce. It is hard to imagine what a modern-day FSA workspace would look like if CO employees didn’t have the same benefits as other federal employees in the office.
History repeats itself and once again we are looking at a situation where there is a disparity between GS and CO benefits. In this case, the new benefit is paid parental leave. FSA CO employees make up the majority of USDA’s field office staff who provide federal benefits to American farmers and ranchers. NASCOE believes the ability of employees to take paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child can’t be overstated. The absence of the paid parental leave would be detrimental to the morale and functionality of those employees who are starting or expanding their families.
A request has been sent to the Department from NASCOE, asking for Paid Parental Leave to be granted to CO employees on October 1, just as it is for GS employees. Again, this is historically how NASCOE has obtained other benefits such as annual leave and sick leave. Additionally, while NASCOE fully expects USDA to grant this benefit to CO employees, we believe the exclusion of CO employees by Congress was an inadvertent oversight. Therefore, NASCOE also intends to request Congress grant Paid Parental Leave as a benefit for all FSA CO employees.
Rest assured, NASCOE leadership fully understands how important Paid Parental Leave, as well as all our existing benefits, are to each of you and we are committed to tirelessly fighting for them on your behalf, no matter how long it takes. Obviously, we can’t do it alone and so we appreciate the support of membership as we work to ensure that you continue to have the same privileges that other GS employees enjoy.
As you are likely aware, the NASCOE Board of Directors recently met via conference call. The sole item of business was to consider how we should move forward with the 2020 National Convention in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. NASCOE finds itself in an unprecedented situation and the safety of our members and partners must be our number one concern. Additionally, NASCOE also has an obligation to limit the potential liability to our association. After much consideration, the Board of Directors voted to cancel the 2020 National Convention in Savannah, GA. This decision was not taken lightly, and we want to personally thank all the individual Board members (two from each state) for their preparation, diligence, and careful weighing of the choices.
NASCOE’s National Convention is primarily our annual business meeting. While we won’t able to conduct that face-to-face this year, we still plan on having an annual meeting in some fashion. Research has begun on alternatives to allow us to have a virtual meeting. The alternatives would facilitate our elections, area breakouts, committee updates, and as many of the business functions of the convention as possible. We’ll be engaging membership in how best to accomplish this and welcome your suggestions.
One can hardly count all the benefits that NASCOE brings, but fellowship and community are toward the top of the list. We know that it is disappointing that we won’t be able to see each other, share stories and enjoy each other’s company. However, these challenges won’t last forever and before you know it, we’ll all be together in Fort Wayne, IN for the 2021 convention. We will also get to experience the hospitality of Georgia, as they will now host us in Savannah in 2022.
Thank you all for everything you do and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments.
Rick Csutoras and Curt Houk National Convention Co-Chairs
On April 17, 2020, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that USDA will use the funding and authorities provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and other USDA existing authorities to fund the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). The program includes two major elements. Secretary Perdue provided the following details about the program aimed at assisting farmers and ranchers as they struggle from the effects of the pandemic:
$16 billion in direct payments for farmers and ranchers: funded using the $9.5 billion emergency program in the CARES Act and $6.5 billion in Credit Commodity Corporation (CCC) funding. The program will provide direct support based on actual losses for agricultural producers where prices and market supply chains have been impacted and will assist producers with additional adjustment and marketing costs resulting from lost demand and short-term oversupply for the 2020 marketing year caused by COVID-19.
$9.6 billion for the livestock industry
$5.1 billion for cattle
$2.9 billion for dairy
$1.6 billion for hogs
$3.9 billion for row crop producers
$2.1 billion for specialty crops producers
$500 million for other crops
Producers will receive a single direct payment determined using two calculations:
Price losses that occurred January 1-April 15, 2020. Producers will be compensated for 85% of price loss during that period.
Second part of the payment will be expected losses from April 15 through the next two quarters and will cover 30% of expected losses.
The payment limit is $125,000 per commodity with an overall limit of $250,000 per individual or entity. Qualified commodities must have experienced a 5% price decrease between January and April.
USDA is expediting the rule making process for the direct payment program and expects to begin sign-up for the new program in early May and to get payments out to producers by the end of May or early June.
$3 billion in purchases of agriculture products: including meat, dairy and produce to support producers and provide food to those in need. USDA will partner with local food and regional distributors to deliver food to food banks, as well as community and faith-based organizations to provide food to those in need. USDA will begin with the procurement of an estimated $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to be distributed by these partner organizations to those in need.
USDA will also utilize other available funding sources to purchase and distribute food to those in need:
USDA has up to an additional $873.3 million available in Section 32 funding to purchase a variety of agricultural products for distribution to food banks. The use of these funds will be determined by industry requests, USDA agricultural market analysis, and food bank needs.
The FFCRA and CARES Act provided an at least $850 million for food bank administrative costs and USDA food purchases, of which a minimum of $600 million will be designated for food purchases. The use of these funds will be determined by food bank need and product availability.
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or the(CARES Act)
Neil Burnette and Clint Bain, Legislative Committee Co-Chairs
to the national crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has passed a
massive stimulus package assisting both businesses and individuals. The
stimulus package will impact the Farm Service Agency and our NASCOE membership.
Below is a brief
summary of these provisions:
The bill provides $3 million for hiring temporary staff and paying for overtime expenses at the Farm Service Agency to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus.
The bill includes a $14 billion boost in funding authority for USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation.
The legislation provides $9.5 billion for assisting livestock operations, including dairy farmers, as well as fruit-and-vegetable (specialty) crop producers. Farmers who sell directly to farmers markets, schools and restaurants would also be eligible for aid.
The bill allows the Secretary of Agriculture to extend the term of a marketing assistance loans for any commodity to 12 months. The authority will expire September 30th, 2020.
The stimulus package provides payments to individuals based on your 2018 or 2019 adjusted gross income. The maximum amount you can receive is $1,200, or if married filing jointly, $2,400 per couple. That amount phases out for single filers with an AGI between $75,000 and $99,000, joint filers with an AGI between $150,000 and $198,000 and heads of household with an AGI between $112,500 and $146,500. Those who qualify for the $1,200 credit will also receive an additional $500 for each qualifying dependent 16 years old or younger. The stimulus money is technically a tax credit for 2020 that will be paid out, in advance, as soon as possible. Individuals with direct deposits established with the IRS could see these deposits within a couple of weeks.
The Legislative team has been closely following
this process and we will monitor how the department responds to these
opportunities as a result of the increased funding. We will provide additional information as it
It’s hard to describe what a confusing and stressful time these last couple of weeks have been for all of us. The news concerning the COVID-19 Pandemic has turned ever more alarming and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that this has created lots of anxiety. We find ourselves worried about interactions with our producers, our co-workers, and even our high-risk family members. As USDA has been balancing service to our producers with employee health and safety, concerns have rapidly mounted. We have been working with FSA leadership to share these worries and issues and would like to take some time now to share where we are today.
The absolute greatest concern we all have is for the health and safety of ourselves, our families, and our producers. All week long, CED’s and PTs have been calling, e-mailing, and texting NASCOE representatives conveying concerns about interacting with the public in our offices and we in turn have shared these concerns with management. The Department initially responded by implementing a screening tool to try and assess our producers before they entered our offices. As this became inadequate, we shifted to limiting visitors. Now, beginning this week, FSA will be prohibiting visitors from entering any USDA Service Center. As the calls for social distancing increased, NASCOE also heard worries about whether employees would be safe amongst themselves in the same building. We shared these concerns with leadership as well. Beginning this week, FSA will be limiting the number of employees in the service center to decrease our possible exposure with each other. Alternative working arrangements may be made for employees who have dependents at home or who certify to being high-risk.
Of course, prohibiting visitors and limiting employees in the Service Center influences customer service. Agriculture is integral to our survival and it is critical that USDA continues to serve our producers to the greatest extent possible. We also know from feedback that we heard during the recent government furlough that everyone wants to continue to work rather than fall further behind. To meet this need, the agency is authorizing FSA employees to telework in certain circumstances. We know this involves being both telework ready and having meaningful work that can be done remotely. Telework is relatively new to most of us and we know there are a lot of questions on how this will work. Once again, we have been sharing these concerns with management. New telework arrangements won’t be ideal or efficient, but they do present some opportunities to continue servicing our producers during this very tough agricultural climate. More important, it is good to know we can service our producers and feel safer than we did a week ago. For those employees who are directed to be out of the office but can’t telework, administrative weather and safety leave is available.
Finally, the situation has been changing very rapidly. We are aware that not every employee in every state is receiving the same message. We have expressed to management the importance of consistent communication. Last Friday, FSA held a conference call for all employee associations. This call was very much appreciated by the NASCOE leadership. NASCOE members should be receiving these notes via email shortly. The agency has also committed to having more of these conference calls as the situation changes. Questions about the new status of FSA employees are common and, in some cases, folks are still looking for answers. In an effort to respond to our membership’s needs during this challenging time, NASCOE has put together a page on our website to provide information about policy that management has presented to state offices. On this page you will find guidelines, notes, frequently asked questions, updates on agency actions and links to websites. This page will be continually updated with new information. You can find this website at: https://nascoe.org/nascoe-covid-19-resources/
NASCOE stands ready to help its members and looks forward to hearing your comments concerns as this unprecedented situation moves forward.
I know there is a lot of conflicting information nationwide concerning FSA’s recent guidance on employee teleworking. NASCOE has been in regular contact with the agency and they are sharing the employee friendly measures they are implementing while balancing USDA’s need to continue serving our producers. Unfortunately, some of our fellow employees in the field are not receiving this news.
This week during the employee association meeting with management, it became apparent that the office of the Deputy Administrator for Field Operations (DAFO) has listened to NASCOE membership’s concerns about our safety and well being. In response, they have worked very hard to provide flexibility to help our employees and farmers work through this unprecedented tough spell. At this meeting, NASCOE expressed concerns over the inconsistency in some State Offices sharing and implementing these measures. I was proud to hear the National Association of District Directors (NADD) speak up and stand tall with NASCOE and reiterate the need for consistency in messaging. Both organizations did what they were supposed to do, advocate for their members.
Communication and consistency are key in these troubled times. While we are hopeful that agency response becomes more steady in the future, NASCOE will work to educate our membership on the guidance as we understand it.
Later this weekend, NASCOE will be providing an update on how we have been navigating through these uncharted waters as we serve our PT’s and CED’s. We will also continue to seek changes where needed, provide clarification, useful tools, and policy updates as they become available.
I want to thank each one of you for your support of NASCOE, it means a lot.
NASCOE has been in communication with management over Departmental directives which were issued to all FSA employees late Friday evening.
It has been confirmed that, unless prior leave arrangements have been made, FSA employees should report to work this week per approved and normal work schedules so they can review and be brought up to speed on the latest guidance.
NASCOE has, and will continue to express concerns of county office employees regarding this unprecedented situation to management.
Many of you have been watching the news and following the development of the Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID‑19. In just the last few days, we’ve seen many events get cancelled, such as the Farm Bureau Leadership Conference in Kentucky and the Houston Livestock show and Rodeo. Sporting leagues are canceling games or ending their seasons early. These cancellations are disruptive and inconvenient, but they are being cancelled out of an abundance of caution for everyone’s safety. NASCOE and our affiliates are unfortunately required to make similar difficult decisions.
We encourage you to read the following important update on NASCOE Events from NASCOE President, Brandon Wilson.
The NASCOE Leadership team anticipates updating membership with additional information as the status of the COVID-19 outbreak evolves.