The looming changes have triggered unionization drives, with workers in charge of research grants set to vote June 11 on joining the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the major federal workers’ unions, after USDA economists voted to join earlier this month.
One watchdog group opposed to the relocation says the relocation is a “back-door” way to cut staff at the Economic Research Service (ERS), which provides research and statistical analysis for lawmakers, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which oversees the allocation of federal funding for primarily academic research across the country.
“These are knowledge-based organizations,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks the federal bureaucracy. “Employee engagement is directly correlated to performance.”
The USDA says workers will be able to remain in their jobs, but for most, that will mean moving from Washington, DC, to a new location.
Three location finalists — Indiana, Kansas City or North Carolina’s Research Triangle — were announced earlier this month by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. In addition to the relocation, Perdue plans to move both the ERS and NIFA under the Office of the Chief Economist, a political branch of the department.
The USDA said the only goal is efficiency.
“It’s been our goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient and customer-focused department in the entire federal government. In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers of the United States,” Perdue said in a statement to CNN. “In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services. None of this reflects on the jobs being done by our ERS or NIFA employees.”
But three longtime agency employees, one from ERS and two from NIFA, told CNN that researchers and economists view the move as an intentional decision to undercut their work. All three employees requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
These workers described a steady flow of coworkers leaving since Perdue’s initial announcement about the relocation plans last year, with one saying they are receiving goodbye emails from colleagues at a rate of roughly two per week.
“People who have families are hanging in limbo,” one of the NIFA employees said. “Many of the decisions they have to make are based on the school year and they simply can’t make those decisions without any certainty.”
The ERS employee said that ERS employees have been told that there will be a limited number of buy-outs and that they will be offered on a first come, first served basis. The rest will have to choose whether to move or quit. They’ve been told they will receive some kind of assistance with a move, but those details aren’t clear.
A USDA spokesperson told CNN that USDA has not yet determined how many people will be offered separation or retirement packages.
“We continue to openly and transparently share information with our employees, stakeholders and Congress,” the spokesperson added.
Peter Winch, an American Federation of Government Employees representative who helped organize the ERS union, said that the union will try to stop the move and, failing that, will bargain to help make the transition as “soft as possible.”
Winch said that there are about 225 NIFA staff eligible to participate in the June 11 unionization vote, which covers all professional and non-professional employees. There were 204 ERS staffers eligible to vote earlier this month, Winch said.
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.
Other agencies within the USDA are also experiencing tumult.
The ERS employee said that even if the move never happens, damage may already have been done.
“My fear is that the quagmire will continue to bleed us,” the ERS employee said. “That’s what is so nefarious about all this, just how strategic this feels.”