Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testifies before Congress in February.

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

More Than Two-Thirds at Agriculture Research Office Reject Relocation

Union survey of some 200 employees shows Perdue plan will lead to high attrition.

Just over two months before their offices are scheduled to move from Washington to the Kansas City area, some 71% of staffers at the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture say they won’t go.

In response to the controversial plan launched last August by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to move NIFA and the Economic Research Service to a locality closer to farm country, the recently unionized Local 3403 of the American Federation of Government Employees canvassed most of the employees of a NIFA staff that has already shrunk from a full complement of 315 in January to 224.

“AFGE estimates that 83 more staff plan to leave through retirements, other jobs, or simply because they are unwilling to leave their homes for the Kansas City region,” the union local said in Wednesday release. “This leaves NIFA with 141 staff or 45% of the full complement. In addition, many employees who may relocate to Kansas City tell AFGE Local 3403 that they may only relocate short term until they find employment in their preferred localities.”

In addition, “Moving a granting agency at the end of the fiscal year will have a detrimental impact on getting grant money out the door to our stakeholders,” said Local 3403 acting Vice President for NIFA Wesley Dean. “Our staff, with all their years of experience, are leaving for other agencies. We should be focused on this, rather than hastily moving the agency.”

The employees who had already left, or who plan to leave by Sept. 30, or who would move only as a last resort totaled 64 among national program leaders and 79 under general program staff, totaling 143 leaving their jobs. AFGE acknowledged that 29% would be willing to consider relocation “if AGFE demands such as a reasonable amount of time for employees to make arrangements for their families and housing were agreed to by the USDA.”

In late June, the same local at the Economic Research Service estimated that two out of three employees were certain they would decline relocation.

The department defends the moves on efficiency grounds, to reduce the cost of living for employees they hope to recruit from state land-grant colleges closer to the Kansas City area—which won the bidding to host the relocated offices against 135 other localities. Perdue’s staff also points to a cost-benefit of analysis of signing new leases.

The union repeated in its statement the criticisms it has shared with many academic and statistical groups saying the “catastrophic attrition...threatens congressionally mandated scientific research, education, and extension related to agriculture and food systems, as well as the many congressionally-mandated formula funds that support state and county extension offices, and the 4-H program. Evidence suggests the relocation of these agencies is an attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”

Warning that rehiring and retraining employees could take years, the union local added that “the low number of employees relocating to Kansas City highlights that relocation has been poorly incentivized for remaining in civil service.”