Emergency Paid Leave Concerns

By Brandon Wilson, NASCOE President
May 26, 2021

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. 

NASCOE Benefits Update – Complimentary Retirement Analysis

Dear NASCOE Members,

The unavailability of the retirement calculator for retirees has left a backlog of employees needing retirement benefits calculated and analyzed.  The NASCOE benefits provider is helping by offering the same calculation services to our members with their software.  This is a complimentary service for NASCOE members, so please reach out to them to obtain a calculation and analysis of your retirement benefits.  You can call 1-800-692-7643 or email them at .

New NASCOE Member Benefit: ABCmouse and Adventure Academy

In our continued efforts to provide valuable benefits, we have partnered with Age of Learning to provide their flagship programs, ABCmouse and Adventure Academy to our membership.

During these trying times with COVID and remote learning, ABCMouse and
Adventure Academy is a great way to supplement your children’s education. Members will receive a 74% discount for both programs on the full monthly price for the first two months. After that, the price is just $9.95/month for ABC Mouse and $9.99/month for Adventure Academy until cancelled.

Please visit https://nascoe.org/benefits/ for more information about this benefit and how to sign up.

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.