Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testifies before Congress in February.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testifies before Congress in February. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Vast Majority of Staffers at Agriculture Research Agency Reject Relocation

Union blames "aggressive timeline" of move from D.C. to Kansas City.

As predicted by many critics of the Agriculture Department’s planned moves of two research offices out of Washington, a staff tally at the Economic Research Service released on Wednesday showed that as many as four out of five of the 200 employees being reassigned to Kansas City will decline to go.

Local 3403 of the American Federation of Government Employees—which voted last month to unionize amid criticism of Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to move two offices closer to “stakeholders”—tabulated the leanings of the employees and released results it said constituted “catastrophic employee attrition.”

“Given the aggressive timeline to move all positions before the end of the current fiscal year, AFGE Local 3403 estimates that 2 out of 3 employees are certain they will decline relocation,” AFGE wrote.

The planned moves of ERS and the department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture were announced last August as a cost-cutting move that would open up jobs to more graduates of land-grant universities in areas where the cost of living is more affordable. After 136 sites bid to host the two offices, the Kansas City area in Missouri and Kansas was selected.

Perdue announced on June 13 that 250 ERS employees are among the more than 550 USDA research employees scheduled to move to Kansas City on or before Sept. 30. Under his re-assignment list first revealed in March, 76 employees would stay in the nation’s capital.

Many academic and statistical groups opposed the moves as disruptive to the professional community in which Washington has been the hub, and challenged the cost-benefit analysis offered by USDA to justify the moves.

The union’s breakdown of employee plans by ERS divisions shows that the Information Services Division “may experience nearly 100% attrition or no one relocating. The Resource and Rural Economics Division may experience more than 90% attrition, and the Food Economics Division could experiencing 89% attrition,” the tally showed. “The Market and Trade Economics Division and Office of Administrator could expect three out of four employees to decline to relocate.”

Including the 76 ERS employees tapped to remain in Washington, “the attrition across ERS is projected to be 50-60%,” the union wrote. “However, many of those remaining in D.C. also say they are seeking new employment because they are scheduled to be reassigned to a yet-to-be identified new facility within the National Capital Region.” Others said they may go to Kansas City but then seek new employment elsewhere.

“The current and projected attrition will curtail research data products that encompass commodity estimates, agricultural sector forecasts, food and farm economic and statistical indicators for U.S. agriculture, conservation, and food policy and markets,” said Local 3403 Acting Vice President Kevin Hunt.

The union local argued that that the resignations prompted by the move will reduce staff quality to a point where years will go by before rehiring catches up. The move also “threatens congressionally mandated scientific research related to agriculture and food systems and ERS’s standing as a Federal Principal Statistical Agency is put at serious risk,” the union stated. “Evidence suggests that the relocation of these agencies is an attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”

Some House Democrats are pursuing language in an appropriations bill that would defund the move, but its fate is unclear.

One ERS employee who spoke on condition of anonymity told Government Executive that “in numerous cases, families are being split by the move with one spouse moving while the other remains in the Washington area for work or family reasons. The short notice has made it impossible for some couples to move together. This is ironic given Perdue’s obsession with ‘one USDA family.’ ” Splitting supervisors from line researchers, this employee added, adds to the difficulties.

 No comparable analysis has been conducted for the 350 employees at the NIFA, AFGE’s national office said, “but they are expected to leave at a similar rate.”