Recently you may have heard that the new Emergency Paid Leave (EPL) provisions contained in the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) do not apply to County Office (CO) employees. NASCOE has been working to address this issue for some time and shares the concern of members regarding this benefit not being equally available to CO employees.
Historically, through the labor management agreement, NASCOE has requested that USDA allow CO employees the opportunity to enjoy benefits like those provided for GS employees by Federal law. USDA has normally responded to those requests favorably such as they did in the fall of 2020 by allowing CO employees access to the Paid Parental Leave benefit.
The EPL benefit provides paid leave to covered Federal (GS) employees when they are unable to work due to certain COVID-19 situations. Although this is a great benefit, it is important to note that when this leave is used, it will be reduced from the total service used to calculate Federal civilian annuity retirement benefits.
While in negotiations with USDA regarding this benefit, it was brought to NASCOE’s attention that USDA’s Office of General Counsel believes they cannot grant EPL benefits to CO employees. ARPA language defined eligible employees as those individuals “for whom annual and sick leave is provided under subchapter I of chapter 63 of title 5, United States Code.” The USDA Office of General Counsel says County employees do not meet this definition, as their annual and sick leave is provided under Title 7.
Moving forward, NASCOE remains in discussions with USDA about rectifying outstanding concerns associated with allowing the leave to be available for CO employees. In addition, the NASCOE Executive Committee will examine demand for this benefit and consider other proposals for similar CO COVID-19 leave alternatives.
Rest assured, NASCOE leadership fully understands how important new benefits, as well as all our existing benefits, are to each of you. NASCOE is committed to tirelessly fighting for them on your behalf no matter how long it takes. We cannot do it alone and appreciate the support of membership as we work to ensure that you continue to have the same privileges that other GS employees enjoy.
Over the last few months, NASCOE has received a substantial amount of feedback in reference to the length of time it takes new hire background checks to be completed by USDA. Many office managers are concerned that new hire temps will not receive their background check before their “Not to Exceed” comes and goes.
The backlog of background checks stems from two sources: Re-assignment of background check duties to the newly created Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Business Center and FSA’s hiring of more permanent and temporary employees.
Once a background check is initiated by a state office, the check is routed to the FPAC Business Center Homeland Security Division (HSD). After cases are submitted to HSD, they are monitored by way of a new process which was implemented in October of this year. This process involves tracking the new employee through the entire background check process. The desired outcome is increased visibility of the background check by stakeholders as it travels through the process between FSA and the Business Center.
Both FSA and the FPAC Business Center are optimistic about the new tracking process. Tracking of the background checks allows FSA state offices and Washington DC staff to see:
When the background check request was submitted
When the prospective employee receives their email security survey (e-QIP Survey)
When the e-QIP survey is received back at HSD
When the Security Initial Determination (SID) is made.
By now state offices should be familiar with this new tracking process. It is likely that your state office Administrative Division is keeping a running record of when checks are submitted to the HSD and they are following up if there are apparent delays. State offices can tell if cases are moving forward, or if they are stalled. When following up, state offices can contact the FSA national office and alert them to a delayed background check. Follow-up is usually initiated if county offices and state offices don’t have results within three weeks.
If the background check is delayed, the county office may follow up to see where the process is stalled. County offices should:
Contact your state offices through normal channels and inquire about the status of the background check
Contact NASCOE by way of your state association if no response is received of the state office and NASCOE can follow-up
As of today, timeframes are improving since implementation of the system in early October. It is expected that timeframes will improve even more in the next few months. State offices and WDC staff are actively looking for delayed background checks and following up with HSD. The personnel at HSD have been responsive to concerns as they are brought to their attention. In cases where county offices have concerns, they can prompt their state office for additional information or reach out to NASCOE for additional assistance. As we move forward, NASCOE intends to continue to monitor the progress of the project and ensure that it moves in a positive direction. The ultimate goal is to continue reducing timeframes for background checks to be completed.
Our lives are increasingly affected by modern technologies that improve the way we live and work. Whether we are talking about communicating with others, tracking assignments, getting forms signed, sending and receiving funds, archiving documents, etc., the solution is now typically digital. At work we use instant messaging, online surveys, digital signatures and more. We rely on tools like SharePoint and GovDelivery. At home we increasingly go online or use apps on our phone to get our news, research issues, or even shop for our groceries.
NASCOE currently utilizes some of these measures, including hosting a website and sending bulletins through an email service. However, recently the Executive Committee has recognized that adopting more of these technologies would provide an opportunity to better conduct business and serve our members. Those technologies that we are using fall under the Webmaster position which is currently an ancillary duty for our Publicity Chair. These IT duties already take up a lot of time and adding new digital solution would be beyond challenging for any existing committee chair. Therefore, the Executive Committee is looking to establish a Technology Coordinator Position to help manage our existing infrastructure as well as assist in adopting various new digital solutions.
NASCOE has approximately 6000 members made up of a diverse group of people from all over the country. We know that many of you not only use these technologies daily, but some of you have detailed knowledge or experience in implementing them. Now is a great opportunity to assist NASCOE in improving or building key infrastructure that could assist your fellow members. Some potential responsibilities are listed below. This is a unique chance to help influence the creation of a national level position from the ground up. So if you have skills or even a passion in elements like web design, app management, database management, or any other IT solution, please reach out. Even if you are not interested in the Technology Coordinator position but possess these talents, please consider letting us know and volunteering.
In order to be considered, please send a brief introduction of yourself and your attributes, skills, and/or abilities to the NASCOE President at . NASCOE positions can take up a substantial amount of volunteer time, so please indicate your general availability.
Potential Responsibilities and Duties
Assist Executive Committee (EC) with questions and issues regarding access and use of NASCOE infrastructure. Examples include assisting with logging in, setting up meetings, troubleshooting errors, etc.
Implement automated NASCOE processes and forms
Develop and maintain cloud based repositories, such as OneDrive and SharePoint. This includes designing interfaces, educating users, and enforcing good IT policies
Create, maintain, and refresh a modernized and user-friendly website
Research beneficial technology for the association, makes recommendations to the EC, and works with contractors to implement as directed.
This is your NASCOE President, Brandon Wilson coming to you from the farm where I’ve been using a little annual leave to help with harvest.
Things are definitely crazy around here… we are harvesting soybeans and corn. Also, we are planting wheat and moving cattle around.
Busy is good and I wouldn’t trade this mini-vacation for nothing.
And speaking of annual leave, we know many of you haven’t been able to take leave this year since you’ve been busy administering important programs such as: MFP2, ARC/PLC, Disaster Programs (such as WHIP, ECP, ELAP, LFP AND LIP) and acreage reporting.
MOST important however, has been your work on administering CFAP 1 & CFAP 2 during the national health emergency.
This unexpected work was (and is) being administered in a very quick fashion because of your tireless efforts and extra time spent at work. -your farmers and ranchers appreciate your efforts very much – and they thank you.
In addition, we’ve heard from many of you about the inability to use leave because of your dedicated time at work to administer these programs which are critical to the citizens of the United States.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) realizes the predicament Federal employees face with use or lose leave.
OPM has determined that a new benefit may apply to Federal employees who helped our nation during the national health emergency. Agencies (such as USDA) can decide to allow some employees to carry more than 30 days of annual leave into calendar year 2021, provided they were unable to schedule that leave due to their work responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
If USDA decides to qualify COF employees, like you and me, they will be able participate in a streamlined process for “essential” employees to carry over leave next year. This streamlined process would mean we do not need to schedule leave in advance for it to be considered cancelled.
While we all agree that carrying over leave is not ideal and can create problems in the long run, we also know that 2020 was an unusual year AND we have earned leave and we have a right to take it.
NASCOE believes the FSA COF employees should have the opportunity to have this benefit- similar to other Federal employees in other agencies that helped provide relief.
Furthermore, NASCOE agrees with OPM that agencies must let their employees know soon if they qualify for the leave carry over assistance benefit. Employees would need to know IF their services have been designated as essential during the emergency employees so they can begin planning.
NASCOE has urged management at USDA to not hesitate in designating FSA COF employees as essential during the health emergency. It is key that they declare our work on COVID-19 relief an “exigency of the public business.” AND that they notify employees soon of this status so that employees can make leave plans.
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.
Are you a retired FSA employee interested in coming back to work on a temporary part-time basis?
FSA is looking for up to 200 experienced individuals to assist with high workload demands. Dual compensation waivers may be available for re-employed annuitants. Duty stations are to be determined upon selection and may include telework.
To express interest and for more information, please email the following information to with the subject line “Reemployed Annuitant Information”:
• Your full name • State you last worked in • Position last held • Your retirement date • Duty location/s of interest
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.