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These USDA employees face a stark choice: Move to Kansas City or be fired

Relocation could seriously disrupt the work of two agencies

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and President Trump speak during a signing ceremony for a farm bill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Agriculture Department is offering employees a rare choice: accept a forced transfer to a post 1,000 miles away or be fired.

The Trump administration’s plan to move two agencies from the District to the Kansas City area includes a document with two blank boxes on it, sent to employees on June 13. Check one, it instructs: Accept the transfer by July 15 or “be separated by adverse action procedures.”

That means getting fired, with an opportunity to appeal the dismissal through what could be an expensive process. Getting fired could also make it more difficult to find another federal job in an area where the government dominates.

Although a limited number of buyouts and early retirement opportunities will be available for what union officials expect to be fewer than 15 percent of those affected, and while some USDA employees might find work in government positions elsewhere in the D.C. area, the disruption to employees generally will be substantial.

“Adverse action” can have another meaning that goes beyond the affected employees and more broadly hits taxpayers, organizations and businesses. In addition to the big hassle for workers, relocations could have an adverse impact — a major brain drain — on the work of the two agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Union officials estimate a strong majority of employees will decline reassignment. If that happens, the work of the small but important agencies could be seriously upset. Even before Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the Kansas City region as the new location, but after officials said the agencies would be moving out of the District, department employees quit in droves, my colleague Ben Guarino reported last month.

“The current and projected attrition will curtail research data products that encompass commodity estimates, agricultural sector forecasts, food and farm economic and statistical indicators for U.S. agriculture, conservation, and food policy and markets,” said Kevin Hunt, a 10-year USDA employee, speaking as acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3403 representing research service staff.

What the government calls “directed reassignments” to a different city are “very rare in the federal government. That's not something that is a common practice,” said Joanna Friedman, a federal employment lawyer with the Federal Practice Group. “This is unprecedented.”

When the Pentagon closed bases around the country starting in 2005, it forced many defense civilians to make a similar choice. “We lost a lot of talent in geographic moves,” said Jeffrey Neal, formerly the top personnel officer at the Defense Logistics Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. “A 20 percent take-up rate is typical.”

Not only are government transfers like the USDA’s uncommon, but the size makes this one especially unusual. Typically, they are much smaller, said Neal, now a senior vice president with the ICF consulting firm. “Years ago, people were more likely to move with their jobs,” he added. “With most people living in two-wage-earner households, it is far more difficult to just pack up and go.”

Many, perhaps most, affected USDA employees are considering a third option — quit and find new work.

“I will be unemployed beyond Sept. 30,” which is the deadline for the District-based workers to report to the new location, Hunt said, “unless I can find another job.”

Of the 547 employees the department wants to move for the two agencies combined, 253 are with the Economic Research Service, 77 percent of its 329-person workforce. An additional 294 are with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 93 percent of its 315-person staff. News of the move prompted a surge of support for the union. Employees at the National Institute voted 137-2 to join AFGE two weeks ago. Last month’s vote at the economic service was 138-4.

When Perdue announced the moves to the Kansas City area, he said, “We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies. The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run.”

But the USDA estimate of nearly $300 million in savings over 15 years is way off, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee-based Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. Instead, it would cost taxpayers between $83 and $182 million, the analysis found. The USDA underestimated the true cost in part because it did not account for “the lost value of research from staffers who resign or retire rather than move,” the association reported.

A group of Democratic senators, including all four from Maryland and Virginia, has introduced legislation to keep the headquarters of the two agencies within the D.C. area.

Andrew Crane-Droesch, an economist with the research service, said he is not moving and is now looking for another job in the D.C. area. “Definitely the choice we face is move to Kansas City or lose our jobs,” he said. “I’m certainly not happy. I love my job, but I can’t move to Kansas City, and moreover, I don’t want to even if I could.”

Like Crane-Droesch, these staffers “have families, they are part of a community and they’ve been dedicated public servants,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations. “They deserve better than having such a radical and consequential do-or-die decision, which is hardly a fair choice, thrown at them at the last minute.”

Read more:

Democrats running out of options to stop Trump from moving two USDA offices

Moving USDA research agencies is part of Trump’s war on science and statistics

USDA research agencies will move to Kansas City region despite opposition

USDA division votes to unionize as employees protest planned relocation