Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has pushed to move more employees outside Washington.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has pushed to move more employees outside Washington. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

USDA Taps Retired Former Employees to Cope With Mass Exodus at Science Agencies

With the majority of employees at the Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture slated to leave rather than relocate to Kansas City, the department is offering jobs to retired employees—in Washington, D.C.

As the Agriculture Department prepares for a majority of staff at two scientific agencies to quit rather than move to Kansas City later this year, it has begun asking retired former employees to return to work, either at USDA headquarters in Washington or from their homes.

The department plans to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City by the end of September. Although employees have until Sept. 26 to make a final decision about whether to accept relocation orders or leave the agency, a majority at both agencies thus far have declined to move.

Facing the prospect of a mass exodus, the department has begun offering jobs to retirees from the two agencies under a waiver from the Office of Personnel Management that allows retired federal workers to return to work while still receiving their defined benefit annuities.

One former ERS employee, who retired several years ago, told Government Executive that the department offered a position working 20 hours per week, at the same salary—prorated on an hourly basis—they were making before they left the agency.

“They offered me a chance to come back 20 hours a week at half of my full salary to work between now and the end of the year in whatever office space they can find in the South Building [of USDA Headquarters],” the former employee said. “Then after that, we would work [entirely] from home.”

The former ERS employee was told by colleagues that none of ERS’s current employees responsible for editing reports before they are published have accepted relocation orders. Even if the department hires a new cadre of workers for those positions, the employee feared the turnover could cause major problems for the agency.

“These reports are very dense, and as an editor you go back and forth with the economists a lot,” the former employee said. “It’s like editing a legal document—you have to get the exact verb correct, and you often can’t edit sentences the way you would other documents. There’s going to be a big ramp-up time to get people who edit these reports up to speed.”

In a statement, a USDA spokesperson confirmed that the department would use the Reemployed Annuitants program to “maintain continuity” at ERS and NIFA following the relocation to Kansas City. The department did not answer questions regarding how many retirees it hopes to rehire or whether any editors have agreed to move to Kansas City.

“Utilizing reemployed annuitants is one component of the department’s long term strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work,” the spokesperson said.

Under the retired annuitant program, an agency can hire former federal workers to one-year term positions, which can be extended. A worker hired under this authority would be paid their full salary and still receive their full retirement payments.

Both the former employee and Peter Winch, special assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who has represented ERS and NIFA employees since they voted to unionize earlier this year, said that ERS is planning to offer retired annuitant status to employees who accept Voluntary Early Retirement Authority payments rather than relocate to Kansas city.

“I can confirm that Dr. [Scott] Angle at NIFA specifically said that NIFA would be planning to rely on reemployed annuitants as well as contractors and new hires to cover the mass attrition,” Winch said. “We asked about it because ERS had mentioned retired annuitants in an earlier meeting. The impression we got at ERS was that the reemployed annuitants might be people who retired some time ago, as well as those leaving payroll now, and that, ironically, they might be allowed to work remotely from the D.C. area.”

Steve Crutchfield, who served as assistant administrator of ERS from 2007 until he retired in 2016, said that even if the department is able to temporarily cover for its workforce losses through contractors and rehiring retired employees, the loss of institutional knowledge will have a severe negative impact on policymaking and the agricultural industry.

“One of the experts that I relied on for issues of farm structure competition and concentration, he’s leaving,” Crutchfield said. “He was the person I’d go to and say, ‘Help, I need an answer and I need it right away.’ If I were there today, I don’t know how I’d be doing my job. So many people with so much expertise and knowledge are not going to be there. It takes years; it takes a long time to build up the intellectual capital to be able to answer the questions I had to answer [from stakeholders].”

Crutchfield said he was frequently a liaison between ERS and other agencies, as well as policymakers on Capitol Hill. He said that lawmakers, state and local governments, as well as the agricultural industry and investors in commodity markets all relied on ERS reports, which run the gamut from farm income forecasts to analyses of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“I think [the staff turnover] is going to be deleterious,” he said. “The information is not going to be as complete, not as comprehensive. On the commodities side, because I’m not at ERS anymore I can’t speak to whether they would drop coverage of the commodities, but it might mean that forecasts might come out less frequently. I’m also hearing that USDA is cutting back on some of its surveys, and without the underlying data to work with, how are analysts going to be able to answer these questions and put out these reports?”

Crutchfield said, given his experience as the main point of contact for people outside of USDA looking for information from ERS, he does not believe Secretary Sonny Perdue’s stated goal of moving the agency “closer to its customers.”

“The customers of ERS’ work to a great extent, where it had the greatest impact, was decisionmakers in Congress and in the executive branch offices,” he said. “I can say I very rarely got a call from a farmer out in the Midwest asking a question.”