ERS move leaves USDA morale lower

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue still stands behind decision to relocate ERS to Kansas City.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

January 2, 2020

3 Min Read
Perdue at NGFA Country Elevator Conference 2019.jpg
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at National Grain and Feed Association Country Elevator Conference in December, 2019. Jacqui Fatka

Employees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are less happy with their workplace, according to a recent "Office of Personnel Management" survey showing a decline in employee engagement at USDA. The drastic drop was driven by the relocation of two offices at the department -- the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food & Agriculture (NIFA) – to Kansas City earlier this fall.

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D., Ohio), chair of the House agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, oversight and department operations, said, “The drastic drop in morale and significant staff turnover at ERS and NIFA are indicative of how the department’s ill-conceived decision to uproot employees out of their jobs and move them to Kansas City will impact research critical to farmers and policy-makers.”

Yet, in December, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he received a personal note from one of the newly hired PhDs working at ERS thanking him for the opportunity to have a career with USDA without living in Washington, D.C., as it would allow him to pay off his school debt and still raise his three young children.

At a job fair to fill positions, Perdue said more than 6,000 applications were received for 300 jobs there. “We’re excited about it,” Perdue said, adding that he hopes to have a full complement of new ERS hires by midsummer of 2020.

According to a USDA spokesperson, as of the pay period ending Nov. 23, 2019, ERS had 31 employees on site in Kansas City, with 68 employees permanently remaining at headquarters in Washington, D.C. As of the pay period ending Nov. 23, 2019, NIFA has 66 employees in Kansas City, with 18 employees permanently remaining at headquarters in Washington, D.C. ERS has 16 employees and NIFA has 14 employees in Kansas City-based positions whose relocation dates were extended to Dec. 9, 2019, and March 30, 2020, respectively.

“In addition to these employees, both agencies are utilizing re-employed annuitants, short-term contractor support and employees on detail from other agencies as a part of the department’s strategy to help ensure mission continuity through the transition. Additionally, we have well over 150 active recruitments in process between both agencies. In total, ERS has 134 positions occupied, and NIFA has 93 positions occupied,” the spokesperson added.

Perdue said despite some reports, work has continued at ERS with either staff continuing on in Washington to finish projects or with accommodations made in order to keep the mission first and foremost.

Yet, the recent morale survey found that other branches of USDA also saw a significant negative shift in employee attitudes, including the Office of Civil Rights, the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Food Safety & Inspection Service. It should be noted that other wings of the department scored modest increases in employee enthusiasm.

“It is not surprising USDA experienced the largest decline in employee morale last year and continues to rank almost dead last in engagement among all large federal agencies. These findings demonstrate the toll the department’s misguided decisions are taking on dedicated civil servants,” Fudge said.

Fudge noted that “continued declines in morale across USDA threaten to cause permanent damage to employee development and retention, ultimately taking the department further from its mission to ‘provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science and efficient management.’"

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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