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

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has pushed to move more employees outside Washington. Andrew Harnik/AP

USDA, Union Reach Deal to Ease Relocation Impact on Feds

Employees who agree to move to Kansas City will be given a financial incentive and a transition period of at least three months during which they can continue to work from Washington.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees announced Friday that they had reached a deal with the Agriculture Department to help mitigate the impact of the department’s plan to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City.

Prior to the agreement, department leadership had not committed to offering relocation incentives of any kind to encourage employees to move to Kansas City. As of a July 15 preliminary deadline for employees to state their intentions, more than half of ERS and NIFA employees either declined orders to relocate by the end of September or did not respond to the order. The employees had just 33 days to make their decision, and the department has not yet determined exactly where the new office will be—the city is part of both Missouri and Kansas. Under the new agreement, employees will have until Sept. 27 to make a final decision on whether or not to relocate. 

As part of the agreement, USDA will provide all employees who accept their relocation orders with a financial incentive equal to one month’s salary, and the department will allow relocating employees to work remotely, likely via telework, until at least the end of December. The deal states that employees may also request additional extensions of the transition period, although they are subject to agency approval.

Additionally, the department will provide employees with 60 days of temporary housing in the Kansas City area. Employees may apply for an extension on that benefit, effectively giving workers up to 120 days to find a permanent home after they relocate.

The financial relocation incentive comes with strings attached. An employee who accepts the relocation order must sign an agreement to remain at the agency in Kansas City for at least one year. The incentive will be paid after six months “of acceptable performance at the official duty station in Kansas City.”

The agreement also codifies that employees have until Sept. 27 to make a final decision on whether to accept the relocation order. Although officials had maintained employees could change their mind after the initial July 15 deadline to accept or decline their reassignments, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had seemingly backtracked from that position in a letter to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., last month.

“The agency affirms that employees may choose to change their response to the directed reassignment letter at any point prior to or on September 27, 2019,” the agreement states.

Although AFGE remains opposed to the decision to relocate agricultural science agencies out of the Washington, D.C., region, officials said they worked toward this agreement to protect employees and the continuity of work they produce.

“This is certainly a positive development that could encourage more employees to relocate, but it does not make up for all the anxiety and anguish that employees have been going through since this relocation was first announced,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox. “At the end of the day, we remain convinced that this forced relocation is bad for employees, bad for the agricultural community and bad for taxpayers. But we are determined to effectively represent these employees, whether they’re in Kansas City or Washington.”

The fate of the relocation remains unclear, however. Although the Agriculture Department continues to push to implement the move to Kansas City by Sept. 30, the release of an inspector general’s report casting doubt on the legality of the move and controversial comments by White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney suggesting the goal of relocation was to shed federal employees have drawn renewed scrutiny in Congress.