August 24, 2021 By Clint Bain and Neil Burnette NASCOE Legislative Co-Chairs
Annually, the NASCOE legislative team engages with Congress regarding what resources FSA needs to fulfill its mission. Even with COVID-19 restrictions this year was no different. The NASCOE legislative consultant has been working with members of Congress to advance NASCOE’s priorities by maintaining key relationships on both sides of the isle in both the House and the Senate.
Recently, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations approved their draft fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill and report. The House companion has now been approved by the full House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House version will be combined to arrive at a version which will serve as a vehicle for FSA’s 2022 salaries and expense funding.
The chart below provides details about FSA salaries and expenses spending levels.
FY 2021 $1,437,038,000
FY 2022 $1,469,784,000 +$32,746,000
FY 2022 $1,472,438,000 +$35,400,000
FY 2022 To be determined
In addition, NASCOE secured language related to our legislative priorities. The below items can be found within the draft Committee bills.
Prohibiting FSA County Office closures
Funding for County Committee meetings
Prohibiting permanent relocation of staff without Congressional notification
The Committee remains concerned about staffing shortages at FSA offices and continues to direct the Secretary to submit a report to Congress with an administrative breakdown of allotment levels by State, current full-time equivalents, current on-board permanent employees by State, and funded ceiling levels by State.
While it is nice to see appropriations that are considerably higher than the previous year, we are not yet at the end of the road. The Legislative Team along with NASCOE’s Legislative Consultant will continue to monitor progress of the Senate Bill as it makes its way to the Senate floor for a vote. If passed, the bills will then go to an appointed conference committee before again coming to a vote in both chambers. A more detailed report regarding the House committee report language and Senate Disaster language can be found on the NASCOE Website.
As most of you are aware, the requirements for attesting to the Federal Employees vaccination status was released this week. We all knew this determination would be coming at some point soon. In a prior bulletin, NASCOE committed that it would work to stay abreast of the situation, research the legal side of the issue, and communicate member concerns to management.
The decision to require working conditions be dependent on vaccine status was made at the highest level of the federal government and it affects over 2million employees. Notably, no unions or any movement in Congress has provided any avenue to overturn what the President has decided.
NASCOE is an employee association, not a union, representing approximately 7000 county office employees and as such, NASCOE has the ability to bargain and share concerns with FSA. NASCOE also employs an attorney and a political consultant for the benefit of members. Recently, NASCOE has used these resources, to address membership concerns about vaccines and testing:
NASCOE has collected concerns and questions from members related to COVID-19 protocols being implemented.
NASCOE has delivered membership concerns to FSA management on a daily basis.
NASCOE has discussed and reviewed individual member suggestions with management.
NASCOE has consulted the NASCOE attorney on the topics of mask mandates, vaccines in the workplace and testing. NASCOE cross references with our attorney what we learn from USDA, CDC, EEOC, DOJ and the news media for accuracy. The attorney is asked to look for areas where legal authorities are abused by the agency.
NASCOE has collaborated with our full time NASCOE political consultant about legislative opportunities that may exist which involve mask mandates, vaccines, and workplace testing. Currently, our consultant sees no readily available solution from Congress on the topic at hand.
NASCOE has conveyed to management the concern regarding the potential loss of employees due to COVID-19 protocols. The concern is great enough that NASCOE has asked management if a plan for re-hiring is in place to address continuity issues due to expedited departures.
The bottom line is that the government, like private sector employers, is able to implement safety measures they deem appropriate. While there are a lot of opinions on what our employer should be doing, the guidance we have received is that our employer has the legal authority to implement these measures and that there are no civil rights violations in the workplace related to COVID-19 safety measures. It should be noted that local businesses such as hospitals and restaurants and even large companies, such as Fox News and Walmart, are also requiring employees to disclose vaccination status.
NASCOE understands that membership from all over the nation have different views and there is not a consensus on this issue. Some members are in favor of vaccines, some are not in favor of vaccines and some members have concerns about medical privacy. None of these opinions are wrong, and as such, NASCOE has the responsibility to represent all membership and while NASCOE does not have the ability to change COVID-19 protocol, we can make sure that the voice of membership is heard.
We know the situation is very fluid and keeps changing. Employees won’t be required to take a vaccine, but many questions remain about COVID-19 testing. NASCOE intends to continue working with our attorney and political consultant to review additional COVID-19 policy as it is issued. We will work with management at FSA to determine where FSA has discretion in rulemaking and continue to push for control at the local level as much as possible. NASCOE will do its best to convey to FSA management that guidance needs to be consistent and clearly delivered so that employees can make the choices they feel are best.
In closing, NASCOE is committed to continuing to voice concerns, frustrations, and suggestions to management. As NASCOE has said from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCOE believes safety decisions are best handled at the local level where local conditions prevail.
The continued support you show NASCOE through good times and bad times is remarkable. We also value your continued feedback. Please work with your NASCOE state affiliate to pass along your suggestions to NASCOE leadership. We will continue to keep everyone abreast of information as it becomes available.
For the entire NASCOE Executive Committee and Committee Chairpersons, I’m Brandon Wilson, NASCOE President. Thank you and good night.
We’re now just a few days from the 2021 NASCOE National Convention in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We know that many of you will be departing soon so we wanted to share some updated convention information and reminders to folks before they get on the road.
NEW: Additional COVID-19 safety measures may be implemented by USDA in the upcoming days. As such, FSA has determined at this late hour that they will not be participating in the convention, either in person or virtual.
Management will likely require individuals to quarantine upon return from personal travel. This may depend on your individual vaccination status. You should communicate with your supervisor or State Office to determine if there is a need for quarantine or telework upon returning from the convention.
NEW: Regular temperature screenings will be implemented for members participating in NASCOE sponsored events.
NEW: An emphasis will be placed on socializing responsibly outside of NASCOE events.
The NASCOE Executive Committee has determined that NASCOE will follow the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for the 2021 National Convention. We will not be distinguishing between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals during official functions, therefore NASCOE will be requiring all attendees, volunteers, and vendors to adhere to the CDC protocols for unvaccinated individual for large events found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/large-gatherings.html.
NASCOE has put into place precautionary measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 among attendees, however all attendees and their guests will need to acknowledge the risks associated with attending the National Convention by completing a release of liability form at registration. The release can be reviewed ahead of time by visiting the NASCOE website at https://nascoe.org/convention-information/2021-nascoe-convention/. While we hope it doesn’t come to it, any attendee, NASCOE member or otherwise, who does not follow the requirements will be asked to leave the convention.
To the greatest extent possible, you should practice social distancing while at the convention. The CDC recommends staying 6 feet away from people who don’t live in your household. Remember, some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Monitor your health daily. Watch for fever, cough, and shortness of breath, as well as other symptoms https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html. Do not travel to the convention if you have these symptoms or have recently tested positive for COVID-19, are waiting on COVID-19 results, or have had close contact with a person who has tested positive for or who has symptoms of COVID-19
Sharing of items is discouraged. Consider bringing your own pens, paper, and any other items needed for the meetings. Bringing a personal water bottle for individual use is also highly encouraged.
While these measures may seem extraneous, there is nothing more important to NASCOE than the safety of our members. This has been true throughout the pandemic as we’ve worked and communicated both internally and with National Office leadership.
With the appropriate precautions, we know that everyone will be able to have a great time while appreciating that they and their fellow members are as safe as possible.
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.
This NASCOE County Office Advocacy Committee (COAC) Committee update provides membership with brief, but important updates and reminders concerning COC elections, ballot counting and COC involvement with the National Association of Farmer Elected Committees (NAFEC).
We understand this is a busy time and we are all preparing for COC elections and ballot counting during unprecedented times. This is certainly no easy task. Moving forward, county offices will bring new COC members on in January. As always, informing and educating our new and old COC members about NAFEC is important. NAFEC is the employee association for County Committee members. NAFEC represents committee members just like NASCOE represents county office employees. As a reminder, NAFEC handles numerous issues for not only County Committees, but also County Office Employees across the nation.
Recently, NAFEC has stressed the importance of conducting ballot counting in a safe manner, while also following the processes outlined in statue, regulation, and handbook policy. The attached letter from NAFEC, is a great example of what NAFEC is doing for COC members, while highlighting their concerns, as we prepare for COC elections and ballot counting in the coming days. Please continue to look for future bulletins concerning NAFEC and other information prior to January Organizational Meetings. As always, if you have any questions, please reach out to the NASCOE County Office Advocacy Committee by emailing .
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.
As you are likely aware, the NASCOE Board of Directors recently met via conference call. The sole item of business was to consider how we should move forward with the 2020 National Convention in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. NASCOE finds itself in an unprecedented situation and the safety of our members and partners must be our number one concern. Additionally, NASCOE also has an obligation to limit the potential liability to our association. After much consideration, the Board of Directors voted to cancel the 2020 National Convention in Savannah, GA. This decision was not taken lightly, and we want to personally thank all the individual Board members (two from each state) for their preparation, diligence, and careful weighing of the choices.
NASCOE’s National Convention is primarily our annual business meeting. While we won’t able to conduct that face-to-face this year, we still plan on having an annual meeting in some fashion. Research has begun on alternatives to allow us to have a virtual meeting. The alternatives would facilitate our elections, area breakouts, committee updates, and as many of the business functions of the convention as possible. We’ll be engaging membership in how best to accomplish this and welcome your suggestions.
One can hardly count all the benefits that NASCOE brings, but fellowship and community are toward the top of the list. We know that it is disappointing that we won’t be able to see each other, share stories and enjoy each other’s company. However, these challenges won’t last forever and before you know it, we’ll all be together in Fort Wayne, IN for the 2021 convention. We will also get to experience the hospitality of Georgia, as they will now host us in Savannah in 2022.
Thank you all for everything you do and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments.
Rick Csutoras and Curt Houk National Convention Co-Chairs