USDA scientists quit over move plan

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 and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have quit in unusually large numbers since August, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that he would relocate the offices.

Managers in the Economic Research Service have 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, which represents service employees.

Perdue presented his idea as a money-saving plan that will move scientists closer to "stakeholders" and "customers" such as farmers. The Economic Research Service is a statistical agency that provides research for lawmakers; the National Institute of Food and Agriculture funds hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural research each year. Each office employs between 200 and 250 people, based on employee estimates. During President Barack Obama's administration, the institute had about 400 workers and the research service had 300.

Former USDA officials, members of Congress, and leaders in the agricultural community have warned that the relocation will weaken the offices and their scientific integrity.

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 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 the research service 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 Economic Research Service economist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The economist recently calculated resignation rates at the agency: The service averaged about one nonretirement departure per month during fiscal 2016 through 2018. Since October, that rate has doubled, the employee said. On a single day at the end of April, six people quit the service.

Economist Brian Stacy left the service 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 Washington for work would be "extraordinarily difficult for my family."

The recent political pressure on the service "seemed to fit a pattern," Stacy told the Post, citing President Donald 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 also would slash funds for research by the service, particularly in nutrition and rural health. The service 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 the service into the office of the chief economist, a political branch of the Agriculture Department.

More than 130 sites across the country sent proposals to the 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 Washington.

In March, Perdue announced 68 "middle list" candidates. On May 3, he said that Kansas City, Kan., the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the state of Indiana were the final contenders, with St. Louis and Madison, Wis., as alternates. In Arkansas, Conway, Jonesboro, Little Rock and North Little Rock were among the cities vying for the offices early on.

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 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 [Economic Research Service] and [the National Institute of Food and Agriculture] and undermine morale," Hoyer said in a statement.

On May 9, employees at the Economic Research Service voted to unionize, by 138-4. Workers at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will hold a vote in June.

"We will, frankly, be wanting to delay this move," said Peter Winch of the American Federation of Government Employees. 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," said Winch.

Winch said the union is entitled to see a cost-benefit analysis for the move, which the USDA has said it will produce but has not released. If relocation expenses exceed $3 million, then the USDA would be required to involve the General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal offices, Winch said.

"USDA is using its own legal authorities" for the relocation project, "and GSA is not involved," said Pamela Pennington, a General Services Administration spokesman.

Business on 05/23/2019