Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has approved paying bonuses to Bureau of Land Management employees who agree to relocate to Colorado and other Western states as part of a controversial plan to move BLM's headquarters out of Washington, D.C., according to an internal email obtained by E&E News.
William Perry Pendley, BLM's acting chief, sent the email to Washington-based staffers this morning, informing them that Bernhardt has approved a bureau recommendation to "offer" those who agree to move "a one-time lump sum payment" equal to 25% of their annual base pay.
But to qualify for the bonus payment, employees must first "sign a written service agreement committing to complete two years of employment with the BLM" in the new location, according to Pendley's email.
A former senior BLM official who reviewed Pendley's email said the "service agreement" is standard, though the former official said such agreements are usually for only one year. Though Pendley does not say so in his email, an Interior Department spokesman said the service agreement will include a stipulation that employees must repay a prorated portion of the bonus if they do not complete the two years of service.
"I am happy to report today that the Secretary approved our recommendations" on relocation incentives, including the bonus payment, Pendley wrote. "We continue to strive for the most thoughtful and considerate approach whenever possible to ensure that employees who wish to continue working for the BLM may do so."
The relocation bonus comes at a tenuous point in the still-evolving plan to relocate most of the bureau's senior management out West, where the vast majority of the 245 million acres of federal lands managed by BLM are located. Bernhardt, Pendley and others have said doing so will improve public lands management and bureau operations by placing decisionmakers near the state and local leaders most affected by bureau actions.
But congressional Democrats have raised objections to the move, with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) this week filing a bill, H.R. 4268, that would require BLM's headquarters to be "located in the National Capital Region."
Washington-based BLM staffers have also expressed concerns, ripping into Pendley during an often-tense meeting last week on the proposed move (Greenwire, Sept. 6).
Thus, the former senior BLM official called the bonus payment a "positive step" to "sweeten the pot" for the 27 administrators and officials moving to BLM's new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and for the more than 200 others set to be relocated to state offices across the West.
"They're paying them money to go," the former official said. "To me, it's the right thing to do."
The bonus payment is consistent with what Pendley told BLM employees at last week's meeting, as well as statements he made this week at a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing (Greenwire, Sept. 10).
Pendley insisted during the staff meeting and the congressional hearing that BLM does not want to lose good employees, and that the bureau will do all it can to ease the transition or find new jobs at Interior for those who decide not to move.
In addition to the bonus payment, Pendley's email today provides more details about standard relocation benefits — referred to as a "Permanent Change of Station" package.
"In addition to the moving allowances that the BLM will pay for every Washington Office employee who is geographically reassigned outside the Washington metro area, we will offer either a funded house-hunting trip in advance of your reporting to the new duty station, or up to 60 days of temporary housing and related living expenses," Pendley wrote.
A source said the "moving allowances" Pendley referenced would include not only the cost to hire a moving company, but also real estate agent fees to sell an employee's house in and around Washington and closing costs associated with buying a new house.
Pendley has told employees BLM will begin notifying those whose positions are moving West by Sept. 17.
"Our move West is taking shape, and we will continue to provide additional updates as soon as we are able," Pendley wrote today. "I hope you join me in welcoming this good news while we work to maximize our service to the American people and continue working to make this move as smooth as possible for all Washington Office employees."
The incentives — and Pendley's publicly stated commitment to take care of employees who relocate, as well as those who do not — stand in contrast to what the Agriculture Department is offering employees affected by the relocation of two Washington-based research agencies to Kansas City.
USDA last month announced that employees who chose not to move would receive less than half the maximum allowed separation payment of $25,000 (Greenwire, Aug. 21).
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