USDA expected to lose two-thirds of research staff in move to Kansas City

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will lose nearly two-thirds of its staff at two research agencies as the department pushes ahead with a move to the Kansas City area.

Sixty-seven percent of employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will leave their jobs instead of uprooting for Kansas City, as will 57 percent of those currently working at the Economic Research Service (ERS), according to information from USDA.

Internal estimates from ERS employees show 70 percent intend to leave USDA rather than move.

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Those two agencies are filled with the bulk of USDA researchers, who either study or fund research into food stamps, climate change, rural poverty and conservation farming.

Critics see the move as another Trump administration effort to sideline those who work on efforts that may be considered counter to the administration's overall agenda.

“The Trump administration’s decision was flawed from the start, but giving USDA researchers two months to completely uproot their lives is plain wrong,” said Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeOvernight Energy: Changing climate boosts Maine lobster industry -- for now | 2020 Dems debate climate response at Detroit debate | Dem asks for perjury investigation into Interior nominee Changing climate boosts Maine lobster industry — for now Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment MORE (D-Maine), who has sponsored legislation to fight the move.

“If given the choice between losing your career and hauling your family across the country on a dime, what would you do? It’s not a choice that they should have to make. These highly-skilled federal employees are being treated as casualties in the Trump administration’s ideological war on science.”

The employee exodus at USDA could inform other departments considering similar moves West. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Tuesday announced its plans to move 323 D.C.-based employees to offices across the West, including a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo.

USDA employees unionized earlier in June as agency heads narrowed their search for a new location. Workers say the short timeline makes it even tougher to uproot and sort out employment and school for spouses and children.

The department unveiled Kansas City as its chosen location on June 16, and employees have until Sept. 30 to move there.

“This kind of staff loss will completely gut the ERA and NIFA, and will ultimately prevent the USDA from conducting critical research that helps grow the food our families eat. I urge Secretary Perdue to reconsider this move," Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility USDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency Fed to launch real-time payments system in 2023 MORE (D-M.D.) told The Hill.

The figures provided by the USDA reflect the decisions of 395 employees at the department, which originally had 547 employees slated to move to Kansas City.

A USDA spokesperson said the department planned to move some vacant positions to the new office, but the agency would not give those figures to The Hill or explain why they were not available.

The 152-person drop in the total number of employees affected by the move shows how many staffers already found other jobs or decided to retire rather than go, several USDA employees told The Hill.

They say the number of employees leaving USDA is likely to grow as the Sept. 30 deadline to report for work in Kansas City nears. Employees said many colleagues have said they will go to Kansas City only as a last resort, hoping to find other jobs before the end of the fiscal year.

Some have said they will go to Kansas City rather than tip their hand to leadership. A survey from ERS found at least 20 employees who said they told department they would move to Kansas City but do not plan to be working at USDA six months from now.

“I would not put any stock in those numbers,” said Laura Dodson, an agricultural economist with ERS who is now a union steward. “A lot of people are saying yes to avoid having adverse action taken and are actively looking for other jobs and have no intention of going to Kansas City but are scared to say no.”

Democratic lawmakers have pushed back against the move, blocking USDA funding from supporting the move and asking the agency to turn over information about its decision-making process. They have sponsored legislation to keep the two agencies in Washington.

And on Tuesday, lawmakers pleaded for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to extend the deadline for employees to make their decision, but USDA has said they are not altering their timeline.

Dodson told The Hill the move has been so rushed, employees who do want to move haven’t been able to get their moving orders, slowing down the process.

“Because of the pace of this move they’re completely unprepared to do it,” she said of top USDA staff.

Senators are expected to further push back against the move in a Thursday Agriculture Committee hearing with USDA staff.

“The USDA should not be driving away its world-class researchers and disrupting important work that improves our agricultural economy," Ranking Member Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowUSDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency USDA office move may have broken law, watchdog says Senate Democrats see Warren, Sanders proposals as unfeasible MORE (D-Mich.) said in a statement to The Hill. "This relocation will not solve any perceived problems, it will only create a catastrophic loss of expertise.”