INTERIOR

BLM may fire employees who don't relocate out West

The Bureau of Land Management is giving itself the option to fire at least some Washington, D.C.-based employees who do not agree to relocate out West, according to formal relocation notice letters sent late yesterday to bureau employees.

BLM hand-delivered relocation notices to 159 D.C.-based employees, an agency spokesman confirmed. The notices give affected staffers 30 days to decide whether to move to the bureau's new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., or to other state offices where roughly 200 positions are being transferred across the West.

The letters state, "If you do not accept this directed geographic reassignment, you may be subject to a removal from Federal service," according to a redacted copy of a relocation form letter obtained by E&E News.

The possibility of termination appears aimed at employees who cannot find other positions at Interior, do not retire or do not respond to the relocation notices, sources said.

BLM representatives did not respond to requests for more information about how many employees could be fired.

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BLM did release a statement saying the bureau and Interior Department are "doing all we can to maintain these talented individuals at BLM or with other positions at DOI."

The statement added, "Right now, we are committed to finding employment for those employees who are unable to make the move out West."

But the notices lay out a "removal from Federal service" process, which includes giving affected employees "an opportunity to respond, orally and in writing, to the Deciding Official who will make a decision based on the proposed removal, supporting documents for the proposed removal, and any response you provide."

It's not clear who the "Deciding Official" would be in such a case.

A former senior Interior Department official said the removal wording in the notice is not required, unless that is an action the bureau is willing to take. The only requirements are that the forms state why the employee is receiving the notice and the rationale for the proposed relocation, as well as a deadline to accept or reject the move — all of which are in the notices handed out yesterday.

Employees who agree to move have 120 days "to report to your new duty station," according to the notice.

Because termination is considered an "adverse action," employees could appeal such a decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the notice says.

"You may also seek corrective action before the Office of Special Counsel, and if you believe you have been unlawfully discriminated against, you may contact an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor within 45 days of the effective date of a decision to remove," it says.

The notices delivered yesterday follow repeated assurances from BLM acting chief William Perry Pendley and other senior leaders that the bureau will help employees who do not feel they can move find other positions within the agency or, more likely, within the Interior Department.

"Our desire is to retain the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our experienced staff, but we recognize that your personal desires or situations may not be compatible with our decisions," Pendley wrote in a staff email last month. "We stand ready, willing, and able to be of assistance to you" (Greenwire, Oct. 8).

Pendley also told a House congressional panel in September that it's BLM's goal to keep good employees (Greenwire, Sept. 10). He said the same thing to D.C. staffers during a sometimes contentious closed-door meeting (Greenwire, Sept. 6).

Employees 'disappointed'

But it appears BLM is prepared to make the move out West with far fewer career staffers than are at the bureau today.

BLM employees in D.C. have told E&E News that as many as 75% could leave the bureau; some have already decided to do so.

Critics, including congressional Democrats, have accused the Trump administration of trying to dismantle BLM. Among them is New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D), who vowed to fight the relocation plan.

"I will continue to work in a bipartisan way on this issue, because the Trump administration should not be deliberately weakening the BLM and upending the lives of the dedicated staff who work there," Udall said in an emailed statement to E&E News.

The threat of termination included in the notices "disappointed" some BLM employees, according to sources, especially coming just before Thanksgiving.

But it also did not surprise them, the sources said.

A former senior Interior official called the termination language in the notices a "strong-arm" ploy that "echoes" public comments made last August by White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

Mulvaney, referring to a separate proposal to move two Agriculture Department research centers out of Washington, told Republican leaders in South Carolina that relocation plans are a great way to "drain the swamp" because employees often quit (Greenwire, Aug. 5).

"What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven't been able to do for a long time," he said.

Federal employees who refuse a reassignment order can be terminated, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

They cannot, however, be fired "any sooner" than the 120-day deadline by which employees who accept the reassignment agree to move to their new location, the OPM documents say.

Help for relocation 'challenges'

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has defended the move of the headquarters to Grand Junction and the relocation of more than 200 other D.C.-based positions to other states in the West. He says the move will improve public lands management and BLM operations by placing decisionmakers near the state and local leaders most affected by bureau actions.

Bernhardt in September approved a bureau recommendation to "offer" those employees who agree to move West "a one-time lump sum payment" equal to 25% of their annual base pay (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

The relocation notice given to the 159 employees notes that 25% payment. It also says those who are "unsure whether to accept or decline" the move "will have resources available to help you make an informed decision."

The notice states that "specialists" will be at BLM headquarters through Nov. 22 "to assist with inquiries regarding relocation, job search, or retirement options."

"DOI will continue working with you to explore job opportunities in the Washington, D.C. area or other desired areas," it adds.

In a statement that didn't address the termination wording, BLM said it is "working hard to make sure every affected employee has information on all options available."

The statement also notes that a "Transition Support Team composed of specialists from Human Resources, Employee Relations, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and other sources is helping individual employees with support and information, as well as career counseling, résumé-writing and interviewing workshops, and identification of vacancies for interested and qualified employees within the BLM nationwide and within the Department of Interior in the D.C. area."

The relocation notice obtained by E&E News was given to employees in BLM's Resources and Planning directorate. It was signed by June Shoemaker, who is acting assistant director of resources and planning.

"While I realize that this geographic reassignment may present some challenges for you, I sincerely hope that you will accept the reassignment," it says. "I am confident your continued contributions to the BLM remain significant to the success of the Bureau's mission."

Email: sstreater@eenews.net

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