USDA cuts payments promised to researchers as agency uproots to Kansas City

A union for employees at the research wings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the agency has reneged on payments promised to employees, rolling back assistance to those who will be forced out of the agency if they do not agree to move to the Kansas City area.

“Due to the volume of applications and in an effort to afford all employees who applied the opportunity to receive the incentive payment, the amount approved for all applicants has changed from $25,000 to $10,000,” the USDA wrote on a form for employees applying for the assistance.

USDA announced in June that it would be moving its two research agencies to Kansas City.

Employees at both the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) 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.

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Two-thirds of staff at the two agencies said they would face termination from the agency rather than uproot. 

Those departing employees were expecting buyouts of $25,000, only to learn from the USDA that they’d be reducing the payout in light of the number of employees fleeing the agency.

“Employees now have less than a week to decide whether to accept the reduced buyout, which also bars them for working at another federal agency for five years. Many of these employees have spent their careers devoted to agricultural research and furthering their agencies’ missions, and they deserve to be treated better than this,” American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. “It’s hard to imagine USDA management finding more ways to demoralize the workers at these two agencies, yet they continue to top themselves at every turn.”

USDA did not agree with the union's contention that the payments were promised. The department is not required to offer Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) nor must the payments be a certain amount, a spokesperson said.

The agency attributed the change in the payment to an effort to make sure all employees would be able to get a payout.

“In keeping consistent with the Secretary’s commitment to “Do Right” by our employees, the Department’s priority was to offer a standard VSIP to every eligible employee who applied, instead of on a first come first serve basis,” an agency spokesperson said in an email to The Hill. “The Department has made it a priority to treat all employees fairly and consistently, and offering VSIP to every employee who applied aligns with that commitment and ensures all eligible employees have access to available options."

The agency has previously said the move is designed to move employees closer to stakeholders — an argument ERS and NIFA employees say makes no sense as they work primarily with lawmakers and universities across the country.

The agency has been heavily criticized for poor planning tied to the move.

Numerous lawmakers have spoken out against USDA’s plans, viewing it as a brain drain that would harm the agencies' missions.

"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 StabenowCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Cash surge puts more Senate races in play Poll shows Sen. Gary Peters with slim lead over GOP rival in Michigan MORE (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said at a July hearing on the move, going on to call it "a thinly veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees." 

Updated at 9:30 p.m.