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Disruption in Services Anticipated From ERS Relocation

07/03/2019

On June 25th, Liz Crampton writing in Politico reviewed the impact of the proposed relocation of the USDA Economic Research Service from D.C. to a new facility in Kansas City. It is intended that the new center in Kansas will be operational on September 1st

The American Federation of Government Employees representing workers at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) estimate that two out of three employees are determined not to move. The USDA has decided that 76 ERS personnel will remain and 200 positions will be moved to Kansas City. For NIFA, 294 positions out of 315 will be relocated to Kansas City.

Of significance is the fact that none of the personnel in the Information Technology Infrastructure have any intention of moving and will remain in the Washington, D.C. area in new positions for which they are suited, possibly outside government.

Approximately 90 percent of employees surveyed in the Resource and Rural Economics Division and the Food Economics Division have indicated that they do not wish to move. It is assumed that a similar proportion of employees inside NIFA will decline to relocate.

Observers and commentators outside Government including economic professionals at Land Grant Universities have highlighted the potential loss of expertise and the impact on policy, market and industry research.

Although USDA has commenced advertising for positions to replace employees who are retiring and resigning, the market for qualified and experienced people is tight and the USDA will be hard pressed to fill positions.

When the relocation was originally announced, USDA Secretary Dr. Sonny Perdue explained that the motivation was to bring ERS and NIFA closer to the farming communities and agencies they serve. A supporting benefit promoted by the USDA was a potential reduction in cost by moving employees from D.C., a high-income area to Kansas.

The union representing ERS personnel has demanded that USDA commence collective bargaining negotiations over the relocation. In a statement, Peter Winch, Special Assistant to the National Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees stated “The Union proposed to have all bargaining relating to this subject conducted within the context of agreed-upon ground rules and to have all implementation of the relocation be held in abeyance until the ERS has fulfilled its collective bargaining obligations”.  In a June 18th communication to USDA, Winch stressed “this would include a freeze on all individual relocation decisions until after the bargaining is completed”. The Union has requested a civil rights impact analysis for the relocation with specific reference to many employees without college degrees but with considerable lengths of service.

Dr. Perdue claimed that relocation to Kansas City would save $300 million over a 15-year period. In contrast, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association estimates that relocation would cost between $37 to $128 million because the USDA did not take into account the lost value of institutional knowledge from the employees who will leave the agencies. It is evident that new hires, if available and even with equivalent education and experience, will still take a number of years to achieve the level of productivity of those they will replace.

The justification for moving two vital and productive components of USDA from a central D.C. location to Kansas appears flimsy. Doctoral-level economists are not extension personnel who are required to kick sods and slop hogs or have direct contact with farmers. The savings projected by USDA to justify the move appear at best speculative. A number of commentators both within and outside the ERS have opined that the intended move, resulting in large-scale resignations, will eliminate personnel who have expressed views at variance with current USDA and Administration policy. Climate change, SNAP and related policy issues have been raised as less than overt justifications for the radical change in location.

If the proposal to move ERS and NIFA from Washington was based on considerations of cost and service, Secretary Perdue should heed the advice of those in academia and industry and reverse the decision before further damage occurs. If in fact the decision was based on other than the intention to reduce cost and enhance service, USDA should be required to justify their decision before Congress if necessary. If there was a covert motivation for the recently abandoned reorganization and now the relocation, the USDA is committing a disservice to both the personnel of the agencies concerned and their constituencies. It is hoped that the decision to relocate personnel will be dispassionately reviewed and if unjustified, the project will be rescinded.