More than half of the employees from two research agencies at the Department of Agriculture slated to relocate from the Washington area have refused reassignment to Kansas City, the department said Wednesday.
Such losses among the research employees affected by the reassignment could result in a drain of institutional knowledge and talent at two agencies that either fund agricultural research across the nation or produce crucial reports, including data on agricultural markets,10-year projections for the farm sector and estimates of US and international agricultural productivity.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the department have argued that the move will lower living costs, save taxpayer dollars and move the agencies closer to “stakeholders.” But many employees at the two affected agencies — the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) — view the change as politically driven and a way to disrupt climate research and other work with which their bosses disagree by pushing out experienced personnel.
At ERS, 72 researchers accepted relocation while 99 either declined or did not provide a response. At NIFA, 73 workers accepted reassignment while 151 declined or did not provide a response, according to a USDA spokesperson. These numbers, which could fluctuate, are also in line with a survey released last week by the union representing NIFA and ERS employees. Staff must report to work in Kansas City by September 30.
Employees from both agencies turned their backs to Perdue in protest at an all-hands meeting last month when he announced the final location for the move.
“We are currently being forced to relocate, quit or be fired,” Kevin Hunt, acting vice president for the ERS union, told CNN. “This is devastating the current science the Economic Research Service produces and puts into question if any current research sees the light of day. The secretary must reverse course immediately and come to the bargaining table now or the American farmer will lose their voices in Washington and American taxpayers will be billed to fix what the secretary broke.”
The move is part of a wider push by the administration to remake the bureaucracy and comes on the heels of this week’s announcement that the Interior Department will relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters outside of DC.
The new numbers and simmering discontent at both agencies will likely come up Thursday when Deputy Undersecretary Scott Hutchins testifies in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Twenty Democrats sent USDA a letter Tuesday demanding answers on the relocation.
Earlier this week, the USDA rejected a set of union proposals, which included allowing employees to telework for up to a year or allowing employees with a “hardship” reason to remain in the National Capital Region.
Peter Winch, an AFGE union representative helping lead negotiations, described the department’s response as a “stall tactic.”
Former USDA officials and scientific and agricultural associations have also come out against the plan, arguing that it may push trained staff out the door and pose a risk to the agency’s independent and objective analysis.
“This proposal puts a world-renowned research agency at risk and could set back the federal statistical system at a time when the United States should be leading the world in innovation,” 56 former USDA officials wrote in a letter submitted to Congress.