Relocated BLM staff face salary cuts

A new internal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website designed to answer employees’ questions about the agency’s upcoming relocation out West says staffers should expect a drop in their overall pay.

The information was included in an internal page available to staff seen by The Hill that contained questions and answers about the controversial plan to move most D.C.-based BLM employees and establish a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo.

In the page, BLM leaders lay out their rationale for the move, touting one of the benefits of relocating as “general cost savings for the bureau because of less expensive office space, in most cases, and decreasing travel costs.”

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The agency will also save on pay, as D.C. employees will not keep the portion of their salary tied to cost of living in Washington.

“An employee reassigned to a relocated position will remain at the grade and pay of his or her current position; however the respective locality pay will vary based on the location of the position,” the website says. 

Locality pay in Washington boosts base salaries by nearly 30 percent. Locality pay in many other parts of the country increases pay by about 15 percent.

A question about whether employees can keep the locality pay that contributes to their current salary, the answer is a simple, “No, this is not an option.”

When reached for comment, BLM said in a statement that the agency has "given multiple briefings to committee members, testified before the committee and provided numerous supporting documents to answer all of their questions about the relocation."

"While we hope all affected employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations, we understand that the decision for most people has many factors," the agency added. "We are committed to making sure that all employees have the information and resources they need to make the best decision and will continue to work with employees to ease the transition."

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The website follows letters sent to 159 Washington-based employees who must uproot to various locations across the West or face being booted from the federal workforce, as the relocation plans would leave just 61 of the agency’s 10,000 employees in the nation’s capital.  

The BLM has argued the moves will bring those employees closer to the lands they manage. But critics see it as a way to dismantle the agency and upset the balance between conservation of public lands and prioritizing energy interests. 

Lawmakers have spent months pushing the agency to justify its claims that the move will save money — requests that have thus far gone unfilled.

Steve Ellis, who retired from the top career position within the BLM in 2016 after 38 years of federal service, said losing that locality pay is to be expected — it’s simply tied to where the employee lives. But he questioned why the BLM won’t turn over the financial justification for the move that lawmakers have requested.

“They may save a few bucks here or there on rent and salaries. However, they’ve not provided this cost-benefit analysis that takes into account flying people back and forth, that takes into account the lack of presence in the nation's capital of the senior career people that have to work with all the other agencies and NGOs and so forth," he said, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

"How do you put a dollar value on that?” he said. “So at the end of the day what’s broken here that they have to fix to move 3 percent of the workforce out West and move leadership out to the briar patch, so to speak? What are they trying to fix? I’d argue they’re going to create more problems in the long run by not having that presence in the nation's capital.”

A letter to lawmakers when the move was announced in July said the agency planned to save money on staff salaries, but it was not clear whether the BLM anticipated saving money with new hires or if they would change the salaries of current employees.  

There are upfront costs to the move. The Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, plans to use $6.6 million within last year’s budget to cover the costs, but lawmakers in both chambers have thus far blocked funding for the move in the 2020 budget.

Costs of the relocation include a house-hunting trip for each employee, moving costs and one-time incentive payments. 

The website also further spells out the agency’s thinking behind selecting Grand Junction for its new headquarters. The 60,000 person town on Colorado’s western slope is at least four hours from any major city and has only a small regional airport and no direct flights to D.C. 

The site says the agency considered cities where the BLM already has a presence, including “large cities as well as smaller communities.”

The list was further narrowed to Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and potential locations were evaluated based on locality pay, cost of living, relative purchasing power, ease of air travel to the BLM’s most frequent travel destinations and office space lease rates. 

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“Grand Junction was selected because of its significant cost savings, travel accessibility, quality of life attributes, and other factors, such as our desire not to place the headquarters in the same city as a state or district office,” the website says.  

Lawmakers have been particularly hung up on the ease of travel from Grand Junction as well as how the move will actually save money. 

“Why Grand Junction? What is the justification for locating there?” Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.) asked the BLM’s acting chief, William Pendley, at a hearing in September. “There’s no major airport there. Denver is 250 miles to the east, Salt Lake is 200 miles to the northwest. There’s no other federal agencies in Grand Junction. How can Grand Junction be more efficient than someplace else out west, be it Denver or Reno?”

The website also gets to another point of concern of critics: that the move will lead to a flight of expert staff as longtime employees will refuse to uproot with their jobs. 

“We hope employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations but there are many factors that an individual may consider when deciding whether or not to relocate, so, it’s difficult to say at this time exactly how many people will choose to relocate,” it says. 

“For these employees who are directly affected there are opportunities and benefits, but also difficult decisions as some people will not be able to or will not choose to relocate to the western offices.”

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In other cases, relocations of federal agencies have gut them of staff. When the Agriculture Department moved the Economic Research Service to Kansas City, Mo., nearly 80 percent of employees left the agency rather than relocate. 

The site says the BLM may allow staffers who choose to move to extend their time in D.C. in order to allow children to finish the school year or if an employee has holiday travel or medical concerns.

The website also has information about many of the places BLM employees have been slated to move, giving tips on where to live.

Updated at 1:05 p.m.