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USDA researchers quit in droves as Trump administration plans relocation

Former governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, was asked about the importance of research on March 23, 2017. (Video: Senate Agriculture Committee)
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A plan to move Agriculture Department researchers out of Washington has thrown two small but influential science agencies into upheaval. Federal employees at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) have quit in unusually large numbers since August, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he would relocate the offices.

ERS leadership has been conducting final site visits this week of candidate locations, and an “announcement Friday is very likely,” said Peter Winch, an organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents ERS workers.

USDA declined to say when it will announce the new location for the agencies. “We don’t undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to improve performance and the services these agencies provide,” Perdue told The Washington Post in a statement.

Perdue presented his idea as a money-saving plan that will move scientists closer to “stakeholders” and “customers” such as farmers. ERS is a statistical agency that provides research for lawmakers; NIFA funds hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural research each year. Each office employs between 200 and 250 people, based on employee estimates. During the Obama administration, NIFA had about 400 workers and ERS had 300.

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.

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.”

The recent political pressure on ERS “seemed to fit a pattern,” Stacy told The Post, citing President Trump’s 2019 budget request that would have cut the agency’s funding by half. “Right after that, along came the relocation and this reorganization . . . I couldn’t help in the back of my mind to think that we were somehow being singled out.”

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.

More than 130 sites across the country sent proposals to USDA to host the agencies. Candidate sites were evaluated based on distance from the capital and other criteria, such as whether they have direct daily flights to the D.C. area.

In March, Perdue announced 68 “middle list” candidates. On May 3, he said that Kansas City, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the state of Indiana were the final contenders, with St. Louis and Madison, Wis. as alternates.

Scientific and agricultural organizations, including the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the American Statistical Association, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, criticized the decision to move the two organizations hundreds of miles.

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.

On May 9, employees at ERS voted 138 to 4 to unionize. Workers at NIFA will hold a vote in June.

"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.”

This article has been updated.

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