NASCOE fights for Paid Parental Leave Benefit

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.

Background

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.

Moving Forward

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. 

Part-time employment opportunity for FSA Retirees

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

#DAFO #Retirees #FSA #NowHiring

President’s Message for March 22, 2020

Greetings NASCOE Members,

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.

NASCOE President Brandon Wilson Contact information

Message to All FSA Employees from NASCOE

Fellow FSA Employees,

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.

Brandon Wilson
NASCOE President

Urgent NASCOE Update – March 15, 2020

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.

URGENT Update Posted!

COVID-19 Impacts on NASCOE Events

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.

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2020_0313_COVID_Brandon

image of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Task Force Volunteers Needed


One of the more important values that NASCOE provides to its membership, is the collection of input on processes that affect programs, customer service and working conditions.  As needed, management will engage NASCOE by asking for names of participants from the field, who can help provide a perspective on how policy might look. 

Previously, NASCOE has negotiated with management, through the NASCOE negotiations process, for the creation of a Shared Management Task force.  Recently, the national office has committed to improving resources available to shared management operations by preparing for the implementation phase of the negotiated task force.  This task force will take ideas from CED’s and PT’s in the field and help mold a model of guidance and available tools to assist shared management operations.  All ideas are on the table.

In addition to the Shared Management Task Force, the national office is preparing to create a County Committee (COC) Training task force.  This task force will be charged with improving the functionality of COC roles and responsibilities.  The group will assist in developing a training program for COC members so that they know and understand their very important everyday roles and responsibilities in program and human resource matters.  In addition to the creation of a COC training program, a similar effort will be launched to refresh State Committee training. 

Both Task forces are equally important, and both impact CO employees in the field.  To make these initiatives successful, NASCOE needs YOUR help.  NASCOE has been charged with finding a handful of good solid county office employees to help fill positions on both task forces.  If you think you can help out, we need you to tell us some information in a short, written format:

  • If you are a CED or a PT
  • The task force in which you would like to participate
  • What relevant experience and qualifications you have (pertinent to the task forces)
  • Why you are interested in participating -AND if you think you have solutions to make the effort succeed.

These duties will be on official time.  Travel may be possible but will probably be limited.  Participation will most likely be by teleconference and kept to a couple hours a week or several hours per month until the task is finished.  To participate you must have your CED or COC approval to participate.

The deadline to submit your name to participate is Sunday, March 15, 2020.  Entries and questions shall be emailed to the following address:  .  Task force positions will be limited, therefore NASCOE will be reviewing your written submissions to help decide who will be chosen to help-out.  Members who are not selected to be on the primary task force will still be engaged.  They will be included in a group that will provide input and ideas for the main task force.

I want to close by thanking you for your involvement in NASCOE.  Your membership creates wonderful opportunities for COF employees to participate in initiatives that improve customer service and make their workplace better.  NASCOE look forward to hearing from interested members who would like to lend a hand and help make processes better.

Important NASCOE Human Resource Updates (CO Hiring & Overtime)

One of the more important functions of NASCOE is to guide employees on matters of HR issues.  As the Business Center has matured following the FPAC reorganization, NASCOE has been working with FSA to educate Departmental leadership on the CO hiring process.  With recent NASCOE budget wins in Congress and the subsequent increase in hiring, NASCOE has recently received several inquiries on the topic of County Office (CO) Hiring.  Specifically, members are wanting to know what is the current administrative structure of CO hiring since Departmental reorganization.

While the GS system was introduced first, CO hiring authority was created later by Congress to provide a local alternative that responds rapidly and efficiently to the agricultural community.  In this way, the CO system is the original “direct hiring” authority.  NASCOE and FSA are both very proud of this system and both support it in its entirety.  FSA has provided extra resources to increase integrity and decrease the time it takes to onboard employees.  It takes about 80 days between the job announcement and full onboarding for CO while it takes roughly 125 days for GS.  These timeframes are expected to decrease with FSA providing increased administrative teamwork for CO hiring and direct hiring authority for GS hiring.  The biggest “hang-up” in hiring at this time is the required security background check.

At present, CO hiring is administered by FSA as part of a team effort that involves the CED, the STO and the National Office.  The STO and the National Office assist with certain administrative functions of hiring while the CED and COC retain ultimate responsibility for interviewing and hiring a qualified candidate.  In an effort to clarify and clear up confusion about the CO hiring process, NASCOE is working to INFORM and EDUCATE membership about the current hiring process which FSA has implemented.  To ensure that local roles and responsibilities are clear, NASCOE is asking local CEDs and COC’s to remember the following important aspects of CO hiring:

  • CED’s and COC’s have the responsibility to hire qualified candidates.
  • CED’s should be granted access to staffing software, where they can view candidates who have submitted complete information (this step doesn’t apply to COC’s because they do not have access to government IT systems).
  • CED’s and COC’s have the responsibility to choose candidates which they want to interview.  These candidates come from the list of qualified applicants who have submitted all necessary documentation during the application process.  Completeness of application is determined by STO’s.
  • CED’s and COC’s may inquire with their STO why certain candidates were determined to have incomplete applications.

CED’s have the responsibility to schedule candidate interviews.COC’s should be involved in scheduling timeframes for interviews, however, it is typical for the STO or the District Director to assist the COC with this step.

Although the CO hiring system remains largely intact, there are some concerns from the field about the STO completing the review of application completeness.  Also concerns exist with increased time spent on background investigations.  NASCOE has already begun to address those concerns with management as we move forward.

Another common HR question that NASCOE receives centers around the topic of compensation and pay for work.  We all agree that it is very important to serve our customers and deliver benefits to them in this tough farm economy.  With condensed timeframes for achieving sign-up, and extremely high workload, we have a reputation for doing whatever it takes to serve our producers.  Having said that, as government employees we must remember that we should never be working without recording our time and receiving compensation. 

Working for no compensation is not advised because:

  • It’s illegal
  • It creates liability
  • AND work measurement becomes a concern (in the long run, not recording our time skews COF workload numbers and results in less staff to assist our producers and decreased customer service)

Recently, while participating in a Congressional hearing, NASCOE was told by a member of Congress that FSA employees always stay late and get the job done.  This is a reputation that should make us all proud.  There have been and always will be times when FSA’s service becomes a critical function and employees are asked to work extra hours to help our farmers.  Recently the national office has announced overtime is available for county office employees if approved by SED’s.  Ensuring these extra hours are compensated ensures that our producers (and the public) realize the required amount of work needed to get the job done.  We are hopeful that management will allow tools such as overtime, comp time and credit time to help serve our customers.

NASCOE Seeks Volunteers for Internal Task Forces

To:  All NASCOE Members
From:  Brandon Wilson, NASCOE President
Purpose:  Recruit volunteer assistance on two special NASCOE task forces


Recently NASCOE has announced two initiatives which will utilize membership assigned to a task force for input during the planning process.  Those assignments are:   

  • Technology Coordinator Task Force: This task force will determine what qualifications are needed by a new “Technology Coordinator” volunteer position which will be created by NASCOE.  The task force will also identify key technology priorities for use in NASCOE business processes.
     
  • Teleconference Alternative Task Force:  This task force will determine cost effective alternatives to the current method of NASCOE internal communications by teleconference.  

NASCOE will fill positions in these groups with a combination of existing NASCOE leadership and new NASCOE leadership.  NASCOE is encouraging all members, (especially those who attended the recent NASCOE Leadership Conference in Dallas) to consider applying for a seat in one of these groups.  NASCOE believes there may be members in county offices who are passionate about technology and who can provide forward thinking innovative ideas to these NASCOE initiatives.

Task force interactions will likely take place using e-mail and teleconference communication.  Some minimal travel could be required.  Time commitments would be around 1-2 hours/month until the task force is completed.

Interested attendees must provide the following information:

  • Short narrative on technology interest, background and skills
  • Preference of task force
  • Contact information (e-mail and phone number)
  • Other helpful information 

The deadline to apply is end of day, December 13, 2019.  Replies should be emailed to the following:

NASCOE President Brandon Wilson Contact information