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More than Half of USDA Science Agency Employees May Leave Rather than Relocate

The union representing workers at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture has requested a one-year period of full-time telework to ease the transition to Kansas City.

More than half the workforce at two scientific agencies within the Agriculture Department are poised to leave their jobs when the agencies relocate to Kansas City later this year, according to numbers from the department.

A USDA spokesperson said that at the Economic Research Agency, 72 employees accepted relocation orders by the initial July 15 deadline, and 99 people either declined or did not respond. At the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 73 employees accepted their relocation orders, while 151 either declined or did not respond.

The spokesperson said that those numbers are subject to change, as employees’ initial decisions are non-binding.

“We expect that these numbers may fluctuate until September 30, the report date to the Kansas City region for relocating employees, as employees are free to change their status until that date,” the spokesperson said.

The department did not respond to questions regarding whether they are making any effort to boost the number of people willing to move with relocation incentives, or whether they plan to use Voluntary Early Retirement Authority or Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments for employees who elect not to relocate.

Peter Winch, special assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who has been in negotiations on behalf of ERS and NIFA employees since they voted to unionize earlier this year, said he reached agreement with the department on ground rules for negotiations, and that the parties will meet to discuss concrete proposals next week.

AFGE has proposed a number of provisions the union said would ease the transition and encourage more employees to agree to the relocation, including offering incentives as well as a one-year period of full-time telework, which Winch said would allow employees to continue to work efficiently while preparing to move to Kansas City. Although the department as a whole has drastically curtailed its telework program to one day per week, Winch said some employees at the science agencies remain on full-time telework as part of reasonable accommodations agreements.

Winch said “25% of employees have said they would reconsider [declining their relocation orders] with a one-year transition period.” 

A department spokesperson said that leadership has an “aggressive hiring strategy” to maintain continuity at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. But Winch said the current numbers regarding who is willing to relocate likely underestimate the coming exodus.

“A lot of people said yes because of the July 15 deadline, but are actually no’s,” he said. “Plus, they’ve lost a lot of people already, so the people they have left to poll are way under full staffing already. Numerous people departed in the last few months, and people on specific assignments have been telling me that [their projects] will be all botched up . . . We haven’t gotten any direction about the continuity issues at NIFA or ERS.”