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.