Opposition mounts to USDA employee relocation

A Department of Agriculture plan to move approximately 700 employees outside Washington, D.C., is receiving increasing opposition from lawmakers, former government officials and private sector organizations for placing undue strain on the workforce at those USDA offices.

“This proposal will be extremely disruptive to the employees of these agencies, many of whom reside in my congressional district, while doing nothing to improve the work these agencies do for the American public,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wrote in a Sept. 4, letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“In fact, the proposal raises serious concerns that the quality of work being done at ERS and NIFA may well be undermined.”

The plan, announced via memo in early August, aims to save the agency money by locating the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in less expensive areas of the country.

“On the face of it, the USDA move looks like common sense. The cost of living in Washington is high, and there are savings to be made by moving these agencies to places where the cost of living is lower. It’s also good to spread federal government agencies across the U.S. and not have them all based in the capital,” said American Statistical Association President Lisa LaVange in a news release.

But experts aren’t certain the money saved will offset the potential costs of the move. The employees at those departments may not want to uproot their lives for the sake of keeping government jobs.

“It’s taken years to build this agency into a world-class center of research filled with world-class experts,” said LaVange. “They can and will take jobs that allow them to stay in their homes and keep their kids in the same schools; they most likely will resign or take early retirement rather than move.”

The USDA memo assured employees that no one would be made to leave their job, but many could feel as if they are in fact being forced, if keeping their job meant a required move to a yet undecided location.

“They have put down roots here: they own property here, they have children enrolled in the local schools and they have spouses with jobs in the area. Forcing them to leave Washington to continue doing the jobs they excel at does them, and their families, an extreme disservice. The likely result is that many will choose to leave the department, contributing to a serious brain drain that will degrade the quality of work at these agencies,” wrote Hoyer.

Federal employees may not be the only ones negatively impacted by the move, according to a Sept. 5 letter sent by 42 relevant organizations to agricultural committees in the House and Senate.

“Relocating the ERS out of the Washington area will certainly mean a significant loss of experienced staff, which, in turn, will jeopardize the ERS operations for, potentially, years to come,” the organizations wrote.

“The ERS informs and helps facilitate competitive markets for agricultural products. Its free and publicly available reports help level the playing field for the 1.9 million small farmers who don’t have the budget to afford the data and analytics provided by the private sector," said Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

According to Patricia Buck, executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, the move could also create a dangerous impediment between the research conducted by the ERS and Washington policymakers.

“Removing ERS from the hub of policymaking decisions in Washington will limit the agency’s ability to interact with those food safety stakeholders responsible for developing policies and regulations that protect Americans from foodborne diseases,” Buck said in a news release.

Under the USDA memo, employees at the two offices are currently expected to relocate by the end of 2019.

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