USDA staffers quit, refuse to relocate from the Washington swamp

Two small agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) may be moving outside of Washington, D.C. and the federal employees involved are not happy about that. Both agencies are seeing an increase of resignations on a monthly basis.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced his intention to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) from the swamp to the heartland. Perdue said to think of it as moving the department’s scientists closer to its “customers”, the farmers. Perdue thinks the move will improve customer service and agency performance. The majority of staffers will be asked to relocate, but the actual location of the move has not yet been announced.

The ERS provides statistical information on emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America to lawmakers. They also provide information on global trade and food safety. The team of employees includes economists, sociologists, statisticians, demographers, and agriculture experts. NIFA funds hundreds of millions of dollar annually in research in the agricultural sector. So, we’re talking about a research agency and the office that figures out its funding needs. The ERS employs about 330 people.

ERS employees are members of the American Federation of Government Employees. They only just joined the union earlier this month. Employees at ERS voted 138 to 4 to unionize. NIFA workers will hold a vote in June. Union representative Peter Winch said the move doesn’t make sense and the government workers don’t want to move. So far, six employees have quit their jobs with ERS this month. That number may sound small, relatively speaking, but it is enough to cause alarm from observers.

Not everyone will be asked to relocate to continue on in their jobs.

A USDA document known as the “stay-go” list, acquired by The Washington Post, describes 76 positions at ERS that would remain in Washington. All other employees would be assigned to the new site, though the document mentions “planned attrition.” The USDA declined to explain this phrase, and a USDA spokesman said in March that the department has “no assumptions at all about attrition.”

“Morale is pretty poor,” said an ERS economist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The economist recently calculated resignation rates at the agency: ERS averaged about one non-retirement departure per month during fiscal years 2016 through 2018. Since October, that rate has doubled, the employee said. On a single day at the end of April, six people quit ERS.

Economist Brian Stacy left ERS in February for a job at the World Bank. Stacy, an economist who studied the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly known as food stamps, wrote in his resignation letter that moving out of the the D.C. area for work would be “extraordinarily difficult for my family.”

There are some potential obstacles to the move, too. Does Secretary Perdue have the authority to move the agencies out of Washington and into another region of the country? And, what about the funding for the relocation?

Former Agriculture Department officials, members of Congress and leaders in the agricultural community have warned that the relocation will weaken the agencies and reduce their influence.

The plan faces several obstacles. The USDA’s inspector general is investigating whether Perdue has the legal authority to relocate the agencies. The House Appropriations Committee’s draft bill of agricultural appropriations for fiscal year 2020, released Wednesday, prohibits the department from using funds for relocations outside the capital area.

Besides budget cuts, there may be an intent to shift the agencies from a focus on science to a focus on economics.

Trump’s budget for 2020 would also slash funds for ERS research, particularly in nutrition and rural health. ERS is part of the Research, Education and Economics division, which is the USDA’s science arm and is overseen by a chief scientist. Perdue has said he would like to move ERS into the office of the chief economist, a political branch of the Agriculture Department.

Lots of towns and cities across the country would like to be the site of the relocation. More than 130 sent proposals to the USDA in hopes of being chosen as the new site. In March, Perdue whittled the list down to 68 choices. Then earlier this month he announced the selection of three finalists – Kansas City, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the state of Indiana, along with two alternates – St. Louis and Madison, Wisconsin. Swamp creatures expressed disappointment that the sites are all outside of the Washington, D.C. area.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) expressed disappointment that none of the finalist locations were within the National Capital Region, where the USDA already owns office buildings. A more distant relocation “will disrupt the important work carried out by the ERS and NIFA and undermine morale,” Hoyer said in a statement.

And the union will try to delay the move.

“We will, frankly, be wanting to delay this move,” said Winch of the AFGE. Workers were told they would be given until the end of September to move to the new city, he said. “We would like a lot more leeway than that,” Winch said.

Winch said the union is entitled to see a cost-benefit analysis for the move, which USDA has said it will produce but has not released. If relocation expenses exceed $3 million, then USDA would be required to involve the General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal offices, Winch said.

“GSA is currently assisting USDA in identifying space for its NIFA and ERS offices,” said Pamela D. Pennington, a GSA spokeswoman. “GSA personnel have recently accompanied USDA on site visits.”

Some Democrat senators are getting in on the action. Chris Van Hollen is holding up the nomination of the USDA’s chief scientist and others are introducing a bill to block the move.

The reluctance of staffers to relocate is certainly understandable on a personal level. It may be good for American farmers and the agricultural sector but it’s hard on families making the decision to uproot. To a lesser extent, some elitists in Washington are concerned about a potential brain drain from the USDA.

“On the face of it, the USDA move looks like common sense,” says American Statistical Association President Lisa LaVange. “The cost of living in Washington is high, and there are savings to be made by moving these agencies to places where the cost of living is lower. It’s also good to spread federal government agencies across the US and not have them all based in the capital.”

But, according to LaVange, there is a practical consequence to this relocation. Many of these employees are not going to readily move their homes and families. And their expertise is not something that can be replaced easily. “It’s taken years to build this agency into a world-class center of research filled with world-class experts,” says LaVange. “They can and will take jobs that allow them to stay in their homes and keep their kids in the same schools; they most likely will resign or take early retirement rather than move.”

However, consider that this is what happens in the private sector all the time. Companies have to consider costs and other practical considerations as they look at the bottom line. When relocation of offices are deemed necessary, or simply shifting employees around to offices where they will be better utilized, the employees have to make a very basic decision. Do they stay with the job they currently hold or do they move on to something else? Some people are open to change more than others. These upheavals never satisfy everyone. In the meanwhile, it sounds as though Secretary Perdue is attempting to make some common sense change to two governmental agencies and that’s probably a good thing. Shaking up the swamp and expanding out into the rest of the country, particularly into areas dependent on these agencies, sounds reasonable.