Update on Delayed Background Checks for New Hires

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.

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.