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Union: EPA stonewalling on sequestration planning info

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In a memo earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to step up planning for across-the-board budget cuts set to begin in March.  Along the way, OMB added, agencies should involve employee unions “to the fullest extent practicable” in any decisions on hiring freezes, furloughs and other measures to cut workforce costs.

John O’Grady questions whether that message made it to the Environmental Protection Agency.  O’Grady heads the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some Chicago-area EPA staff and is also treasurer for the union’s national council of EPA locals. He sees little evidence that the agency is making much effort at outreach.

“It’s maddening,” he said last week after joining in an agency conference call that, by his account, produced little of note. “People are sitting in their cubes, they’re waiting for this hammer to go down and nobody’s giving them any information.”

In the Jan. 14 memo, acting OMB chief Jeff Zients declared that agencies had already engaged in “extensive planning” for the possible cuts, formally known as sequestration.  Based on documents that O’Grady shared with FedLine, EPA officials either aren’t very far along or aren’t willing to explain what’s in store for EPA’s 18,000-strong workforce.

In an extensive request for information last month, for example,  O’Grady asked the agency for a list of functions nationally that could be downsized if the cuts—formally known as “sequestration”—take effect as scheduled March 1.  The union also sought a list of all contracts and a rundown of any contractor-performed functions that could be transferred to federal employees in the event of sequestration.

In its reply this month, EPA declined to provide any answers. “The union’s request is overly broad, unduly burdensome and the union has failed to state a particularized need for the requested information,” wrote Mitch Berkenkemper, the agency’s director of labor and employee relations.

This could be seen as typical labor-management sparring, but the information blackout at EPA and other civilian agencies stands in sharp contrast to how the Defense Department is proceeding. In the last two weeks, the military services have outlined a host of steps–including civilian hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary employees and possible furloughs–that are under way both to prepare for sequestration and the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution.

This could be seen as prudent planning that might have the side benefit of reminding members of Congress that the cuts would have a nationwide impact. The consensus is growing, however, that lawmakers and the Obama administration will fail to reach the agreement needed to avert the reductions, at least initially.

The latest to sound that view was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I think the sequester is going to happen,” Ryan said yesterday on the NBC talk show, “Meet the Press.”

EPA is already taking some small downsizing steps. Last month, the agency offered $25,000 buyouts and early retirement for up to 29 employees in its Washington, D.C. Office of Environmental Compliance and Assurance, and another 88 for staff throughout its San Francisco-based Region 9 bailiwick.

“Region 9 sought the authorities to facilitate the restructuring of enforcement work into a single enforcement division,” Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld wrote in a Dec. 3 memo. “The retirements will help us achieve voluntary staffing reductions and create opportunities to recruit entry-level employees.”

An EPA spokeswoman referred FedLine’s emailed questions on sequestration planning last week to OMB, which did not respond to a request for comment.

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Retirements continue to rise — what’s it mean for you?

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The latest pension processing stats from the Office of Personnel Management contained an interesting nugget on retirement trends. Namely, that they’re continuing to rise in 2012, after shooting up 24 percent in 2011.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Agencies are offering federal employees buyouts and early outs left and right to deal with limited budgets. And with Congress constantly threatening to further freeze feds’ pay, increase their retirement contributions, or switch to a high-5, many feds are beating a path to the door.

Federal Times would like to hear from you about the still-increasing retirement trend, and how it touches you. Are your co-workers dropping left and right lately, and is that hurting your agency’s ability to get its mission done? Or are you yourself planning to retire soon, and why?

Write me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. I’m interested in hearing from managers as well as rank-and-file employees. If you want to stay anonymous, that’s fine.

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Air Force buyout, early out applications close Friday

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Are you at the Air Force, and thinking you might want to take the buyout or early out offered earlier this month? Better get moving. Friday is the last day for eligible employees to apply.

The Air Force hopes 4,500 civilians will apply for this second round of buyouts and early outs. Those who are accepted have to retire by April 30.

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UPDATE: GAO OKs 42 buyouts

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CORRECTION: GAO said the union published incorrect numbers in its newsletter. The actual number of buyouts has so far been 42, and another three early retirements. GAO said the program closes Sept. 20, and those numbers could change between now and then.

ORIGINAL POST: The Government Accountability Office has approved buyouts for 41 employees, and early retirements for another 5 employees.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 1921, also known as the GAO Employees Organization, listed the buyout and early out numbers in an e-mail newsletter sent to members this afternoon.

In an Aug. 8 memo to employees, GAO listed 56 positions — mostly management-level and other upper-level analysts and criminal investigators in bands IIB and III — that it hoped would accept the buyouts. GAO did not say how many early retirements it expected. Employees who were approved for a buyout or early out must leave by Sept. 30.

Tight budgets prompted GAO’s staffing cutbacks. In his Aug. 8 memo, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said they “will help GAO adjust to our anticipated fiscal year 2012 budget while continuing to support our strategic plan and meet the needs of Congress.”

IFPTE’s newsletter also said GAO’s field office study team is scheduled to brief the agency’s executive committee on their initial findings Sept. 16. The team could recommend field office closures and layoffs as part of the first review of GAO’s field office structure in more than a decade. IFPTE said that before GAO management settles on any workforce restructuring because of the team’s findings, it is obligated to discuss alternatives with the union.

This continues government agencies’ ongoing trend of offering buyouts and early retirements to deal with tight budgets in the coming years.

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Buyouts beginning at Army

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The Army is taking its first steps  in its year-long mission to cut 8,741 civilian positions by October 2012. The Army Materiel Command today said it is offering $25,000 buyouts to 33 civilian employees in its headquarters to help it meet its mandated cuts of at least 1,223 civilian positions. Those 33 employees accepting the buyouts must leave the government by the end of September 2011, AMC said. The command wants to cut a total of 72 civilian positions from its headquarters staff, and is accepting early retirement applications to cover the rest of the cuts.

AMC spokesman Boyd Collins said the command hopes that it won’t have to resort to reductions-in-force layoffs, and that buyouts, early outs, reassignments and hiring freezes will be enough to cut its positions. A July memo from Army Secretary John McHugh said AMC will cut 1,223 positions, but Collins said that AMC expects to go further and cut 1,660 civilian positions.

This is the latest in a recent trend of federal agencies offering buyouts and early retirements to cut their ranks, largely due to ever-tightening budgets. Expect to see a lot more coming.

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Federal Times buyout tracker

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With well over a dozen agencies considering, planning or offering buyouts and early retirements, we thought it was time to compile all this data together into one easy-to-find chart. As new agencies announce buyouts or update their plans, we’ll update the chart too, so keep checking FedLine for the latest in buyout news.

The latest is the Library of Congress, which today told employees it would offer buyouts and early outs to up to 349 employees. And it’s a safe bet that plenty more are on their way, especially with the White House eying budget cuts of up to 10 percent.

Agency Month Numbers Details
Justice Jan. 31 Antitrust Division employees who took buyouts
USPS April 2,003 Employees who took $20,000 buyouts; left by June
FTC April 38 Employees who took buyouts and early outs and left by end of June; offers were extended to 301 employees
USDA May 544 Employees offered buyouts; unspecified number of early retirements also offered
Smithsonian May 104 Employees who applied for buyouts so far; some may drop out by Oct. 1 deadline
GPO June 330 Buyouts and early outs offered
NRC June Up to 50 Plans to ask for permission to offer up to 50 buyouts and unspecified number of early retirements; says still polishing request to be submitted to OPM
HUD June Unk. Said several offices have permission to offer buyouts and early outs
Army Aug. Up to 8,741 Announces plans to cut 8,741 civilian jobs by Oct. 2012, at least in part through buyouts and early outs
Education Aug. Unk. Announces buyouts and early retirements largely targeted at senior officials
GAO Aug. 56 Employees offered buyouts, unspecified number also offered early retirements; must leave by Sept. 30
Commerce Aug. Unk. Offers buyouts and early outs through Dec. 31, 2012
Air Force Aug. Up to 4,000 Announces plans to offer buyouts and early outs to 4,000 civilians
Library of Congress Aug. 349 Buyouts and early outs offered; 175 to Library Services, 52 to Copyright division, 40 to Congressional Research Service, 29 to Office of Support Operations, 24 to Office of Strategic Initiatives, 16 to Law Library, 13 to Office of the Librarian

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OPM approves GAO buyouts

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The Government Accountability Office just told its employees that the Office of Personnel Management has given the thumbs up to its buyout and early out plans. GAO sent employees a memo last week offering the buyouts and early retirements, but cautioning they were contingent on OPM’s approval.

The deadline to apply is Sept. 6, and those who accept the offers must retire by Sept. 30.

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Buyouts and early outs: We want to hear from you

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It seems every time we turn around these days, another agency is offering buyouts or early retirements. Last week, it was the Education Department, then the Government Accountability Office, and now the Commerce Department has gotten permission to use those tools to cut staff at eight bureaus.

What’s the scuttlebutt around your office? Are you hearing watercooler rumors about planned buyouts or early outs, or have your supervisors sent out e-mails or memos confirming they’re in the works? We’d love to hear what you’re hearing. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com with any news about buyouts or early retirements at your agency. If you’d like to just talk off the record, that’s fine.

And while we’re on the subject, what do you think of these offers? Are you planning on taking them, if you have the chance? Is a $25,000 buyout offer enough to get you to give up your career, with the private sector job market so dicey and the stock market giving people whiplash? Or would you need more to give up your federal job?

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Did anyone take the USPS buyouts?

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Are you one of the 18,000 people who accepted the Postal Service’s $15,000 buyout offer? Want to talk about why you took the deal? E-mail me. (Alternatively, if you didn’t accept the deal, I want to hear why not!)

I’m working on a story about the buyouts, and I’d love to include your stories. Glad to keep you anonymous, of course.

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