Hundreds of professional researchers at the US Department of Agriculture are waiting to hear where outside the Washington area their jobs will be relocated – part of a drive by Secretary Sonny Perdue to cut costs in the federal bureaucracy that many workers also see as a way to disrupt climate research and other work their bosses disagree with.
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.
“If Secretary Perdue wishes to eviscerate ERS and NIFA research that is opposed by the White House, let him make that case to Congress, rather than hide behind an unjustified, criticized plan to force world class researchers to make the decision to uproot their families or leave their careers,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade senior policy analyst Steve Suppan said in a statement.
The Trump administration has been focused on remaking the federal bureaucracy, triggering a steady outflow of career civil servants. The Environmental Protection Agency’s workforce, for example, has decreased by nearly 1,200 employees in the last two years, according to federal data – many of whom were scientists, according to records obtained by the Washington Post.
The ERS and NIFA units have produced research with conclusions that contradict the Administration’s talking points, especially on topics like the impacts of climate change on crop or livestock production, or how changes in trade or tax policy, like tariffs or Trump’s tax plan, can affect US agriculture. For example, two ERS researchers presented a paper last year that suggested Trump’s 2017 tax reform would benefit the wealthiest farmers at the expense of lower-earning farm households, according to the New York Times.
The relocation initiative has brought simmering discontent at USDA to a head. The agency, which handles everything from farm management to school lunches, was among those hit by last winter’s record-setting partial federal government shutdown. It has seen the largest drop in employee engagement – a measure that gauges satisfaction and commitment – falling 6.9% between 2017 and 2018, the most out of any of the large agencies surveyed, according to an annual government survey.
“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.
The relocation plan has drawn opposition from House Democrats, who included language in their budget banning USDA from using funds allocated by Congress to relocate either NIFA or ERS outside the capital. A group of Democratic senators have also introduced legislation that would bar USDA from moving and reorganizing ERS and NIFA.
The USDA’s inspector general is also investigating whether Perdue has the legal authority to move the agencies.
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.
“ERS is ranked as number three in the world of institutions in the field of agricultural economics, a reflection of our leadership in economic research,” 56 former USDA officials wrote in a letter submitted to Congress. “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.”
Other agencies within the USDA are also experiencing tumult.
Last week, USDA announced it will cease operating the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, which help train low-income, rural students on how to respond to national emergencies, and will transfer them to the Department of Labor. Nine out of the 25 centers are expected to close as part of the move, according to the announcement, and a union spokesperson from the National Federation of Federal Employees told CNN that the move will cut more than 1,000 jobs.
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.”