WASHINGTON D.C. -- More than half of the employees from two research agencies at the Department of Agriculture slated to relocate from the Washington area have refused reassignment to Kansas City, the department said Wednesday.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the department have argued that the move will lower living costs, save taxpayer dollars and move the agencies closer to "stakeholders." However, many employees at the two affected agencies view the change as politically driven and a way to disrupt climate research and other work with which their bosses disagree by pushing out experienced personnel.
The two agencies -- the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) -- fund agricultural research and produce crucial reports, including data on agricultural markets and 10-year projections for the farm sector.
At ERS, 72 researchers accepted relocation while 99 either declined or did not provide a response. At NIFA, 73 workers accepted reassignment while 151 declined or did not provide a response, according to a USDA spokesperson. These numbers, which could fluctuate, are also in line with a survey released last week by the union representing NIFA and ERS employees. Staff must report to work in Kansas City by September 30.
While some feel the move increases the agency's accessibility to farm land, others raised concerns over the relocation of workers and bias toward Missouri and Kansas.
"We are currently being forced to relocate, quit or be fired," Kevin Hunt, acting vice president for the ERS union, said. "This is devastating the current science the Economic Research Service produces and puts into question if any current research sees the light of day. The secretary must reverse course immediately and come to the bargaining table now or the American farmer will lose their voices in Washington and American taxpayers will be billed to fix what the secretary broke."
The move is part of a wider push by the administration to remake the bureaucracy and comes on the heels of this week's announcement that the Interior Department will relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters outside of DC.
The new numbers and simmering discontent at both agencies will likely come up Thursday when Deputy Undersecretary Scott Hutchins testifies in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Twenty Democrats sent USDA a letter Tuesday demanding answers on the relocation.
Earlier this week, the USDA rejected a set of union proposals, which included allowing employees to telework for up to a year or allowing employees with a "hardship" reason to remain in the National Capital Region.
Peter Winch, an AFGE union representative helping lead negotiations, described the department's response as a "stall tactic."
Former USDA officials and scientific and agricultural associations have also come out against the plan, arguing that it may push trained staff out the door and pose a risk to the agency's independent and objective analysis.
"This proposal puts a world-renowned research agency at risk and could set back the federal statistical system at a time when the United States should be leading the world in innovation," 56 former USDA officials wrote in a letter submitted to Congress.