Employees from two Department of Agriculture research agencies stood and turned their backs to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at an all-hands meeting Thursday to silently protest a decision to relocate the agencies halfway across the country.
Perdue announced earlier Thursday morning that the Economic Research Service, which provides research and statistical analysis for lawmakers, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which allocates federal research funding, will be relocated to Kansas City from Washington, DC, the final announcement in a process that began last year.
The department says the move will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but many employees view the change as politically driven and a way to disrupt climate research and other work with which their bosses disagree. Both agencies recently voted overwhelmingly to unionize to push back against the move.
Perdue announced the final relocation site in a letter that was distributed to employees Thursday morning. Perdue and the department have argued that the move will lower living costs, save taxpayer dollars and move the agencies closer to “stakeholders.”
“Following a rigorous site selection process, the Kansas City Region provides a win win – maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes, and extraordinary living for our employees,” Perdue said. “The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland.
Near the end of his nine-minute speech, Perdue said, “Moving you out of the capital area in no way lessens your importance.” The secretary took no questions from employees after speaking.
Kevin Hunt, acting vice president of the ERS Union, condemned the move as “cold-hearted” and that it “highlights his disregard for the rights and well-being of employees.”
“Secretary Perdue continually speaks of transparency and communicating to employees but has failed on both fronts,” Hunt said.
One watchdog group opposed to the move has previously said the relocation is a “back-door” way to cut staff.
The announcement included a cost benefit analysis report that says the agency will save $300 million over a 15-year period.
The USDA also walked back its previously announced plan to reorganize the Economic Research Service under a political branch of the department, saying they will not move forward with this “after hearing feedback from stakeholders and members of Congress,” according to Thursday’s release.
The agency will remain part of the research, education and economics mission of the department.
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 agency outside the capital. A group of Democratic senators have also introduced legislation that would bar USDA from moving the research agencies.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Perdue said that “Congress can do what Congress does, and we will respect that.” He added that they have tried their best to persuade Congress and hope that the move will be seen as a “legitimate executive function.”
The USDA’s inspector general is also investigating whether Perdue has the legal authority to move the agencies.
Perdue also thanked the two research agencies for their “professionalism” and said it’s “understandable” that some have expressed displeasure. He added that this decision was not made “with disruption in mind,” and that federal employees have many other opportunities within the government should they choose to stay. Employees were to receive their reassignment information on Thursday.
“I’m convinced that once people who choose to move can relocate to Kansas City I think there will be more furor trying to move them back after three or four years than moving them here,” Perdue said. “It’s not like a company closing in rural America where there are no other jobs there.”
Other agencies within the USDA are also experiencing uncertainty.
Last month, USDA announced it will cease operating the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, which help train low-income, rural students 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.