Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA's Farm Service Agency has been operating since March 23 without allowing visitors to enter its service centers, a policy that has forced FSA employees to adapt to a new way of doing business.
USDA Undersecretary for Food Production and Conservation Bill Northey says the FSA personnel are working with producers using phone appointments as well as "email and online tools whenever possible."
"We continue program signups, loan servicing and other important actions on behalf of producers as we look to new ways to deliver the programs, loans and other necessary actions," Northey told Agri-Pulse. "USDA is also reviewing program flexibilities to ensure we provide the safety net and loan options our agriculture producers need." On the coronavirus, Northey says USDA "is closely monitoring the situation and continues to take steps to ensure the safety of employees and customers."
In the following Q&A, which was conducted by email, Brandon Wilson, president of the National Association of FSA County Office Employees, offers NASCOE’s view on how the COVID situation has been handled by the Department of Agriculture, NASCOE members’ morale, and current operations.
Wilson made clear that his comments “are those of NASCOE and do not represent the positions of USDA or FSA. Any questions about official USDA or FSA policy should be directed to USDA and/or FSA.”
How many FSA employees are NASCOE members? What percentage of FSA employees is that?
FSA County Office Program staff numbers around 6,700 nationwide. NASCOE, which is a voluntary professional employee association, represents all of these employees and enjoys a membership percentage of around 82%. NASCOE’s mission is to improve both customer service and working conditions for County Office employees. NASCOE also promotes the value of FSA’s services to decisionmakers and various stakeholders. FSA County Office employees are unique in that they are hired and supervised by locally elected farmers and ranchers who serve on the FSA County Committee.
How well has the department handled the coronavirus situation thus far?
The department's response has been fluid as this unprecedented modern-day situation has unfolded. FSA's mission is important, and USDA has been committed to continuing service to our producers.
How are FSA employees handling it? Are operations proceeding normally?
Our members are anxious like the rest of America. We’re concerned about our health, the health of our families and the health of our customers. However, we also understand the uncertainty in the agricultural community and are committed to minimizing disruptions to our farmers and ranchers. While there will be a learning curve associated with no customer face-to-face interaction, we are confident that FSA will continue to work with producers to deliver our programs. Although we’re operating without physical visitors in the office, FSA employees are available to our customers by phone, mail, e-mail and other technology. We’re using flexible work schedules to maximize safety and productivity and, in some instances, laptop computers to assist with telework.
Are customers concerned about FSA employees and vice-versa? Before the new policy requiring that no face-to-face interactions started, do you feel employees were protected adequately?
Employee and customer health and safety is of upmost concern to NASCOE. When the COVID-19 outbreak was classified as a "pandemic," NASCOE immediately began voicing concerns to FSA management about taking pro-active and precautionary safety measures. Feedback was properly provided to management, which eventually resulted in moving employees from a more exposed position to a less exposed position in the workplace. It became quite clear that employees were more at ease in the new controlled environment. In many rural communities, businesses such as ag suppliers and implement dealers had already taken similar measures.
Is it important to relax some regulatory requirements in the face of the pandemic?
Not being a legal expert, it's difficult to speak on regulatory requirements as they pertain to FSA programs in the face of a pandemic. FSA has announced they are relaxing some processes, particularly regarding farm loans, and has also moved to allow employees to accept additional forms by electronic signature. FSA employees plan to continue helping customers with complex government programs.
FSA is currently analyzing barriers that restrict customer service during this pandemic, as well as exploring new and innovative ways to serve our producers while supporting telework and safe social distancing. Soon after the outbreak, NASCOE was given an opportunity to place volunteers from our county offices on an FSA customer service task force tasked with developing new ways to continue operations in this new environment.
What stage is the 2019 ARC/PLC signup at right now?
The 2019 ARC/PLC signup is all but wrapped up. Having just completed both ARC/PLC and a general CRP sign-up, many county office employees are in a period of "catch-up" right now. FSA also is still accepting applications for WHIP+ and other disaster and price support programs. NASCOE anticipates very important new work assignments associated with recent actions taken by Congress to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on our farmers and ranchers. Our historically busier times are expected later this spring and summer when crop acreage reporting starts.
Note: The 2020 signup is ongoing with a deadline of June 30, 2020.
What's the mood/morale of your members right now?
FSA employees are understandably anxious. We were glad the department agreed with NASCOE about potential COVID-19 exposure concerns. As a result, county office staff eventually moved to a more limited employee/customer interaction. When the new working arrangements were announced, employees were relieved as conditions that presented potential exposure to both our employees and producers were reduced. Moving forward, employees will be very mindful of generally-accepted practices that reduce chances of contraction and spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of Agri-Pulse or Agri-Pulse West by clicking here.
We have some situations where employees who are now teleworking do not have access to portable computers or reliable internet. Other situations exist where employees now have dependents at home who need full time care or home schooling. We are actively working with FSA to arrive at solutions to accommodate some of these situations while continuing to serve our producers.
For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com