2020 NASCOE Convention Update

Greetings NASCOE Members,

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.

Sincerely,

Rick Csutoras and Curt Houk
National Convention Co-Chairs

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or the (CARES Act)

Neil Burnette and Clint Bain, Legislative Committee Co-Chairs

In response to the national crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has passed a massive stimulus package assisting both businesses and individuals. The stimulus package will impact the Farm Service Agency and our NASCOE membership.

Below is a brief summary of these provisions:

  • The bill provides $3 million for hiring temporary staff and paying for overtime expenses at the Farm Service Agency to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus. 
  • The bill includes a $14 billion boost in funding authority for USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation. 
  • The legislation provides $9.5 billion for assisting livestock operations, including dairy farmers, as well as fruit-and-vegetable (specialty) crop producers. Farmers who sell directly to farmers markets, schools and restaurants would also be eligible for aid.
  • The bill allows the Secretary of Agriculture to extend the term of a marketing assistance loans for any commodity to 12 months.  The authority will expire September 30th, 2020.
  • The stimulus package provides payments to individuals based on your 2018 or 2019 adjusted gross income. The maximum amount you can receive is $1,200, or if married filing jointly, $2,400 per couple. That amount phases out for single filers with an AGI between $75,000 and $99,000, joint filers with an AGI between $150,000 and $198,000 and heads of household with an AGI between $112,500 and $146,500. Those who qualify for the $1,200 credit will also receive an additional $500 for each qualifying dependent 16 years old or younger. The stimulus money is technically a tax credit for 2020 that will be paid out, in advance, as soon as possible.  Individuals with direct deposits established with the IRS could see these deposits within a couple of weeks.

The Legislative team has been closely following this process and we will monitor how the department responds to these opportunities as a result of the increased funding.  We will provide additional information as it becomes available.

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)

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.