The Agriculture Department is preparing to issue hundreds of termination letters to employees who have not agreed to move from the District of Columbia to Kansas City. The notices, arriving sooner than some workers and their supporters expected, will accelerate a controversial relocation process that has already stripped two USDA agencies of key research staff.
Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he would relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which manages a $1.7 billion portfolio of scientific grants, and the Economic Research Service, an influential federal statistical agency. The agencies rent office space in Southwest Washington near the waterfront.
In June 2019, Perdue declared the Kansas City region as the site of the new offices. USDA’s cost-benefit analysis suggests the move will save taxpayers $300 million over 15 years. The department has not said whether the employees will work in Kansas or Missouri; instead, it has set aside temporary office space for staff in its Beacon Complex in Missouri.
On June 13, USDA sent reassignment letters giving workers until 11:59 p.m. on July 15 to respond. Those who declined or who did not respond would lose their jobs, the letter warned.
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, the union that represents the agencies, requested an extension for the deadline. Given the 900-mile distance from Washington to Kansas City and the uncertainty around which state to move to, the union considered 30 days insufficient time for employees to make a commitment.
In a phone call with Sen. Christopher Van Hollen (D-Md.) on July 14, Perdue told the senator the deadline would be extended until Sept. 30, according to the senator’s description of the call.
Two days later, Van Hollen and 18 other Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to Perdue to confirm the Sept. 30 deadline. Also that day, USDA announced that 250 USDA employees, two-thirds of those reassigned, declined to relocate and would lose their jobs.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney recently praised the USDA attrition as a way to “drain the swamp.”
On July 17, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) wrote a letter to Perdue asking why he had not yet responded to the extension request. “We have heard from numerous federal workers who have requested personal extensions to this July 15 deadline, yet none has been approved,” Wexton wrote. “One such extension request would allow a current employee undergoing chemotherapy to continue their treatment with their trusted team of physicians.”
In a letter to Van Hollen in late July, the secretary said the July 15 deadline was final but that the department would evaluate employee extensions on a case-by-case basis.
Perdue never replied to Wexton’s letter, the congresswoman said in a statement to The Post on Wednesday. The department also “failed to respond to the employees who made requests for extension — yet they are able to issue termination letters to hundreds of dedicated public servants,” she added. On Tuesday, USDA notified the union that employees would soon begin receiving the termination letters.
A draft termination letter obtained by The Washington Post, whose authenticity was confirmed by two USDA employees and Wexton’s office, states that employees will be fired Sept. 27.
USDA did not respond to questions from The Post. The department provided a statement: “While USDA did not extend the notification deadline of July 15, we have continuously maintained that employees have until the report date to amend their decision which may include changing from a no to a yes. We are actively working with employees so they can make the decision in a timely manner to ensure they are able to take advantage of all available resources. The mandatory report date for relocating employees in Kansas City is Sept. 30, 2019.”
An investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, published Monday, determined that money already spent on the relocation violated the 2018 spending bill, because USDA did not acquire congressional approval.
USDA’s general counsel argued that the requirement for congressional approval was unconstitutional. In a letter to employees on Wednesday, Scott Hutchins, the USDA deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, said the department attorney’s opinion is binding.
“No one should be concerned about being accused of, or punished, for violating the Antideficiency Act when they incur and submit requests for reimbursement for relocation costs,” Hutchins wrote. Some USDA employees, he said, have already arrived in Kansas City.
Wexton called for the relocation to be halted immediately. “Secretary Perdue is ignoring his own inspector general, he is ignoring Congress,” she said, “and he is ignoring many of the farmers he supposedly serves.”