The U.S. Department of Agriculture's planned relocation of its two premier research agencies -- the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) – is not merely a relocation; it’s a “demolition,” Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said in a hearing Thursday morning.
In noting that the Administration’s budget proposals would have cut USDA economic research funding by 50%, Stabenow said she is concerned that the relocation is an attempt to go around Congress and carry out steep reductions in capacity and research.
NIFA is projected to experience catastrophic employee attrition as a result of the short-notice move of 90% of all NIFA employees out of the National Capital Region, according to attrition data obtained and compiled by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3403 -- the union representing NIFA -- as part of a summary of all employees.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced June 13 that approximately 294 NIFA employees are among the more than 550 USDA research employees scheduled to move to the Kansas City area on or before Sept. 30. The relocation has been highly controversial from past administrators warning against the potential "brain drain" that could occur if high numbers of seasoned scientists and employees decide not to make the move.
Only 21 positions within NIFA and 76 positions within the Economic Research Service (ERS) will remain housed in Washington, D.C.
According to a USDA spokesman, NIFA is reporting 73 acceptances and 151 declinations of employees who will not make the move (the latter includes employees who declined to provide a response). ERS is reporting 72 acceptances and 99 declinations/non-responses.
During the hearing, Scott Hutchins, deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, argued that USDA expected such attrition numbers, since he has seen similar attrition rates in other relocations he’s been a part of.
In an analysis released June 26, the union noted that ERS could expect more than four out of five of the more than 200 employees being reassigned to temporary offices in Kansas City to decline relocation. Given the aggressive timeline to move all positions before the end of the current fiscal year, AFGE Local 3403 estimates that two out of three employees are certain that they will decline relocation. The Information Services Division may experience nearly 100% attrition, or no one relocating. The Resource & Rural Economics Division may experience more than 90% attrition, with the Food Economics Division experiencing 89% attrition. The Market & Trade Economics Division and Office of Administrator could anticipate three out of four employees declining to relocate.
Of the estimated 71% of NIFA employees who will not make the move to Kansas City, 29% said they would be willing to consider relocation if AGFE demands a reasonable amount of time for employees to make arrangements for their families and if USDA were to agree to housing.
USDA has officially said no to a list of 11 demands by the union and, in a letter to the union, said it “declines to agree to any proposal that would precondition the exercise of any management rights on the completion of bargaining.”
Hutchins told the senators that telework could be an option that will be decided in negotiations occurring Friday.
Employees had until July 15 to tell USDA their intentions to make the move to Kansas City or exit the agency. Although the final location of the Kansas City region was announced last month, it has not been finalized whether the permanent site will be on the Kansas or the Missouri side. Meanwhile, for employees making the decision to uproot their families, many school districts in the Kansas City region start the year on Aug. 12.
While a fully staffed NIFA has 315 employees, NIFA has lost 23 employees since late February, leaving the agency with 224 staff members, or 71% of a full complement. AGFE estimates that 83 more staff plan to leave through retirements, other jobs or simply because they are unwilling to relocate to the Kansas City region. This would leave NIFA with 141 staff members, or 45% of the full complement. In addition, many employees who might relocate to Kansas City told AFGE Local 3403 that they may relocate only short term until they find employment in their preferred localities.
The USDA spokesman did state that the anticipated numbers may fluctuate until Sept. 30 -- the reporting date to the Kansas City region for relocating employees -- as employees are free to change their status until that date.
“These anticipated ranges were taken into account in the department’s long-term strategy, which includes both efforts to ensure separating employees have the resources they need as well as efforts to implement an aggressive hiring strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work,” the spokesman noted.
NIFA is the federal partner of the nation’s Land-Grant University System, working with scientists, researchers, educators and organizations around the country to make vital contributions to cutting-edge, federally funded science.
NIFA programs advance the competitiveness of American agriculture, bolster the U.S. economy, enhance the safety of the nation’s food supply, improve the nutrition and well-being of American citizens, sustain natural resources and the environment and build energy independence.
“Moving a granting agency at the end of the fiscal year will have a detrimental impact on getting grant money out the door to our stakeholders,” said Wesley Dean, Local 3403 acting vice president for NIFA. “Our staff, with all their years of experience, are leaving for other agencies. We should be focused on this rather than hastily moving the agency.”
Hutchins couldn’t confirm that ERS reports and NIFA grant funding for land-grant universities wouldn’t be delayed in response to questioning from Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.). Hutchins emphasized that he wants to support the employees, which includes communication and being decisive. He also stated the need to ensure the continuity of the research mission.
The ERS commodity outlook program delivers timely, independent and objective information about agricultural markets and provides projections of U.S. and world agricultural commodity production, consumption and trade. These outlook reports are highly anticipated for U.S. and global markets.
Other ERS data products include forecasts of farm business and household income, commodity cost of production, outlook reports covering major crops and livestock products, annual 10-year projections for the farm sector, forecasts of the Consumer Price Index for food, estimates of U.S. and international agricultural productivity, rural county typologies, state fact sheets, annual reports on food security of U.S. households, the Food Access Research Atlas, the Food Environment Atlas and Cost Estimates of Foodborne Illnesses.
“The current and projected attrition will curtail research data products that encompass commodity estimates, agricultural sector forecasts, food and farm economic and statistical indicators for U.S. agriculture, conservation and food policy and markets,” Local 3403 acting vice president Kevin Hunt said.