USDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reversed course late Friday, agreeing to key union demands as nearly two-thirds of its research staff will leave the agency rather than move to new headquarters in the Kansas City area.

The announcement follows a tumultuous few weeks at the USDA where employees were given a month to decide if they would uproot from D.C. by Sept. 30 or lose their jobs that same day.

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Employees at both the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) — two of the major research wings within USDA — unionized in the wake of the agency’s relocation plans and the USDA has been heavily criticized by lawmakers for the short timeline and chaos surrounding the decision.

The Friday contract will allow employees who agreed to relocate to telework through the end of the year, including the option to extend the time period.

Employees who make the move will also be given a bonus equal to one month’s pay “to help compensate for the loss of income incurred by employees moving from the higher wage D.C. area,” according to a press release from the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the USDA employees.

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenFury over Trump Syria decision grows Furious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Democrats to offer resolution demanding Trump reverse Syria decision MORE (D-Md.) was one of several senators pushing for more flexibility for ERS and NIFA staffers, particularly as on-the-ground preparations in Kansas City appeared to be lagging.

“Will you also commit to utilizing available office space and teleworking capabilities to keep your employees in the National Capital Region unless and until a final office space is completed and ready for occupancy in Kansas City?” Van Hollen wrote to USDA Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueWe must reject the 'go big or go home' mentality of modern agriculture Overnight Energy: Perry denies he is planning to resign | Workers sue over Trump rule on pork inspections | Video shows cacti at national monument being bulldozed for border wall Workers sue over Trump administration rule that speeds inspection of pork products MORE in July.

Two-thirds of the staff at the two agencies told USDA they would forfeit their job rather than move to Kansas City in a plan many say is politically motivated and poorly organized. 

“Moving these researchers out of Washington puts them out of earshot from policymakers. A lot of the research that scientists and economists do at [the USDA] has policy implications, and members of Congress need this information and need to have face-to-face meetings with these researchers,” Rebecca Boehm, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Hill when the move was first announced.

“It keeps science out of the policymaking process. And we’ve seen many times that this administration doesn’t like facts or research that isn’t convenient or [is] an impediment to their agenda, so I think moving them away helps accomplish that,” she added. 

Democrats have repeatedly questioned the wisdom of the move.

“It is still unclear to me what problem the USDA is trying to solve with this move. ... We do know what problems it is creating,” Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowUSDA nixes release of multiple reports over researcher exodus Schumer throws support behind Pelosi impeachment inquiry Senate Democrats hesitant to go all-in on impeachment probe MORE (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said at a July hearing, going on to call it “a thinly veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees.”

Those outside of political circles have also questioned the planned relocation and whether it’s entirely legal. A Tuesday report from USDA’s Office of Inspector General said the decision may have violated the law.

The USDA’s general counsel, Stephen Vaden, has argued that the department is not bound by laws requiring it to secure congressional approval to spend the money to relocate, claiming the law in question is unconstitutional.

The inspector general’s report counters that Vaden's claim is “not consistent with prior positions taken by the Department.”

“To reach management decision on this recommendation and to ensure consistent treatment going forward, the Department needs to communicate, in writing, this change of interpretation to USDA leaders at the Sub-Cabinet and Agency levels,” the report states.

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

Updated at 6:36 p.m.