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Trump administration to pull out of rural Job Corps program, laying off 1,100 federal workers

A Job Corps firefighter removes the invasive common buckthorn to protect biodiversity in Black Hills National Forest on Oct. 2, 2014. The Boxelder center is one of 16 that will see a shift in management. (Boxelder Job Corps)

The Trump administration announced Friday that it will kill a Forest Service program that trains disadvantaged young people for wildland fire fighting and other jobs in rural communities, laying off 1,100 employees — believed to be the largest number of federal job cuts in a decade.

The Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers enroll more than 3,000 students a year in rural America. The soon-to-close centers — in Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington state, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oregon — include hundreds of jobs in some of President Trump’s political strongholds. In Congress, members of both parties objected to the plan.

The drawdown of the program, starting in September, will result in the largest layoffs of civil servants since the military’s base realignment and closures of 2010 and 2011, federal personnel experts said. Nine of the centers will close and another 16 will be taken over by private companies and possibly states.

The program will be transferred to the Labor Department, which will close some and hand over operations of others. The agency will continue operating its other Job Corps programs in urban areas. Officials said many of the Forest Service operations are low-performing, with inefficiencies and high costs, and that a reboot was necessary.

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, clearly distressed at having to relay unsettling news to her employees, announced the layoffs in a conference call Friday morning. She told hundreds of teachers, administrators, vocational and residential staff on the phone from multiple states that she learned of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision four days ago.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Christiansen told the employees, many of whom asked when and how they would be formally notified that they would lose their jobs and whether they would receive paychecks until that happens.

Christiansen called the decision a “high-level, pretty quick decision.”

“I know many of you have never heard what a RIF is and all that goes with that,” she said, referring to a reduction in force, the official federal government term for a layoff. “We’re going to work through this together.”

Shortly after the call finished, Labor announced in a news release that it is “modernizing and reforming part of the Job Corps program.”

“This action creates an opportunity to serve a greater number of students at higher performing centers at a lower cost to taxpayers,” the statement said.

In a brief letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta dated Friday, Perdue said his agency has other priorities.

“As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative that the Forest Service focus on and prioritize our core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our Nation’s forests, and step away from activities and programs that are not essential to that core mission,” Perdue wrote. The program was all but zeroed out in the president’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

Still, the closures already are meeting resistance from some Republicans in Congress whose districts will lose federal employees and students in rural communities.

“This organization has changed the lives of men and women across the country who otherwise might not have had a chance,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said in an email. The center in his district, Jacobs Creek in Bristol, Tenn., is not on the list for closure, but its future was uncertain.

“Jacobs Creek has given many young people the opportunity to turn around their life, and I hope this will continue for generations to come,” Roe said, vowing to “remain as a strong advocate for this program” and press the Trump administration to keep the centers open.

Neither Labor nor Agriculture officials would publicly acknowledge the layoffs, with each agency referring personnel questions to the other.

Job Corps has been a troubled program, with student safety issues, staff turnover and, in some centers, a poor record of job placement.

But Democratic House aides and the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing Forest Service employees, said 1,100 job center workers, from welders to counselors, will lose their jobs at the soon-to-be-closed and privatized facilities.

“This is a politically motivated attack that oddly enough, offends both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in communities across the country,” union president Randy Erwin said in a statement. He called the decision “a coordinated attack on the most vulnerable populations in the country: Rural and urban low-income young people hoping to succeed in life.”

Union spokeswoman Brittany Holder said in an interview, “What we’re saying is, ‘This is free labor to the taxpayers. You’re boosting the economy in the rural parts of the country. These are 16-year-old kids.’ ”

Job Corps has its roots in the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the popular work-relief program for unemployed, unmarried men that operated from 1933 to 1942. The current program dates to the Johnson administration.

The administration does not need approval from Congress for the layoffs, but the Office of Personnel Management must approve them. The process has costs, though, because everyone losing their job must receive severance pay and be paid for unused leave.

“This would probably be the largest RIF in the government in a decade or more,” said Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now senior vice president at ICF, a consulting firm. The last large round of layoffs involved base closures that were ordered during the George W. Bush administration and took effect under Barack Obama.

Democrats, acknowledging the problems with the Job Corps, said nevertheless that the Trump administration is using performance problems to close the centers.

“We are disappointed by the Trump Administration’s decision to turn its back on the youth that depend on the Job Corps program in rural communities,” Democratic Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement.

“These programs give young people valuable on-the-job experience and training — putting them on the path to a good job while learning about how to conserve and protect our natural resources.”