USDA Agency’s Relocation Could Affect Grantmaking Abilities, Union Says

Up to 70 percent of relocating workers at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture could leave the agency, the union reports. Last year the agency distributed $1.5 billion to universities and research projects around the country.

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The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will lose so many employees in its move to Kansas City that it could affect its ability to distribute grants to land-grant universities and other institutions, according to a press release from the union that represents NIFA workers.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which NIFA workers voted overwhelmingly to join last month, says that up to 70 percent of the institute’s workers might quit rather than make a permanent move from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area.

The union’s press release says the institute will experience “catastrophic employee attrition” as a result of the move. The USDA has not released any figures on employee attrition. Workers have until July 15 to decide whether to make the move.

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“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, the acting vice president of Local 3403 for NIFA, in the press release. “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.”

In 2018, NIFA distributed nearly $1.5 billion in grants, primarily to universities. The grants went to research projects and institutions in about half of all U.S. congressional districts, according to the agency’s website.

Current funding opportunities highlighted on the agency’s website include support for workforce development and family services for military families, building stronger university agriculture programs, and helping farmers who are experiencing mental health crises.

NIFA has 224 employees, according to the federal employees union. More than a third of those employees (83) do not plan to make the move with the agency when its offices relocate to temporary quarters in the Kansas City area, the union said. Another group of current employees plans to move with the agency temporarily until they find other employment, according to the union. Others say they will move only as a last resort.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has said moving NIFA and another agency, the Economic Research Service, out of the Washington, D.C., area will save taxpayer money and put the agencies closer to their constituents.

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Part of the reluctance of NIFA employees to relocate has to do with the quick turnaround and continuing uncertainty about where the Kansas City offices will be located, according to the employees union. On June 13 Perdue announced that NIFA and ERS will move to the “Kansas City Region,” but the bidding process on permanent office space is still open. That complicates the move for families, according to the union:

Employees must respond to relocation orders by July 15, giving families too brief of a period to uproot and complete their move to an area where some school districts start the year on August 12. … In addition, on July 3, GSA [General Service Administration] extended by one month until August 7 the deadline to submit bids for the permanent location for NIFA and the Economic Research Service (ERS), meaning that employees will have to find housing and choose schools without knowing the location of their employer and even whether it will be located in Kansas or Missouri.

Attrition at the Economic Research Service, the other agency that is moving from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region, could be even higher, according to another press release from the employees union. That report, which also calls employee attrition “catastrophic,” says four out of five ERS employees who are being reassigned might leave the agency. About 200 ERS workers are slated to move by September 30.

The Economic Research Service produces a wide range of reports on topics such as agricultural economics, rural development, demography, food trends, and conservation.

“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,” said Local 3403 Acting Vice President Kevin Hunt in the press release.

The union analysis of Perdue’s relocation of ERS says the move is an intentional effort to weaken agricultural science. “Evidence suggests that the relocation of these agencies is an attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply,” the June 26 statement says.

The USDA did not respond to the Daily Yonder’s request for comment. (The Daily Yonder will update this story if we receive a response from USDA. – Editor)

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