Few ERS and NIFA Replacements as Relocation Reaches Milestone Date

When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Kansas City as the new home for two USDA research agencies, officials laid out an aggressive schedule to have everyone in place by today, the final day of fiscal 2019. The USDA has hired only a comparative handful of workers to stanch staff turnover that could exceed 75 percent and the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee says the disruption is affecting farm bill implementation.

“The relocation has left these agencies with little ability to do their important work,” wrote Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in a letter to Perdue over the weekend. The National Institute for Food and Agriculture is late in awarding research money and there are reports the Economic Research Service will delay some reports and may not provide as much depth or expertise as usual in other reports, she said.

“ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission critical work throughout the transition, and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its mandated and calendared projects,” replied a USDA spokesperson to a question about the agency’s workload.

The ERS analyzes food, natural resources, rural development and agricultural issues, including USDA programs. The NIFA awards more than $1 billion a year in competitive research grants.

By moving the agencies out of Washington, Perdue says the USDA will save money on rent and salaries, have an easier time recruiting analysts from college towns, and put USDA employees closer to “stakeholders.” Opponents say the justifications don’t hold water. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists point to repeated administration proposals to slash ERS funding and see an ongoing attempt to gut the agencies.

The union representing ERS and NIFA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, estimates 78 percent of ERS employees left the agency rather than move. Nine percent relocated and 13 percent were given extended time in Washington, according to the union. The are unofficial estimates of an 80 percent turnover at NIFA. The USDA says the figures on staff turnover “are changing daily” because employees can change their minds up to the day they are expected to report to their new location. “The agencies won’t have final numbers until after the report date.”

Some 547 ERS and NIFA jobs initially were scheduled to move to Kansas over a three-month period ending today. There have been some adjustments in the transition timeline. Both agencies also have job vacancies, making it harder to track job slots. All the same, the USDA could preclude any congressional effort to block the relocation by completing the move during the same fiscal year it was announced.

According to the USDA spokesperson, the ERS had 10 new employees and NIFA had three new employees as of Sept. 23. Four new ERS staff members and one new NIFA staffer were set to start work this week. “Additionally, we have well over a hundred active recruitments in process as both agencies.”

“The department recently told my staff that in the interim, it will hire back retired employees on a part-time basis and detail employees from other agencies to fill in the holes while they hire new employees,” said Stabenow in the letter to Perdue. “It seems counter-productive to terminate current employees to simply hire others back on a part time basis when the USDA already has enormously high vacancy rates.” Stabenow contrasted the high turnover at ERS and NIFA with USDA’s repeated assurances of a seamless relocation.

Although some discretionary projects may be delayed at ERS, the USDA believes it will maintain the quality of its reports through the combined work of employees who relocate and skilled new employees.

Politico reported last week that 38 reports, ranging from dairy consolidation to international agricultural market access, will be delayed due to mass attrition at ERS, according to a memo drafted by USDA managers. “Due to decreased staffing levels, ERS will for considerable time be unable to provide the same level of breadth and depth in its economic research and outlook analysis as it did in the past,” said the memo, according to Politico.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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