“Everyone here is just so depressed”: USDA’s research employees have two weeks to decide whether to move to Kansas

In the latest wrinkle, ERS employees who choose not to move will have "Adverse Action" placed on their records, marring future employment prospects.

As the Department of Agriculture (USDA) plows forward with controversial plans to relocate its research agencies from D.C. to Kansas City, many affected staffers are scrambling to secure new jobs.

A survey of over 200 employees of the Economic Research Service (ERS), one of the agencies included in the move, found that 80 percent would rather quit their posts than move out of the Beltway, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union that represents ERS staffers.

“The [ERS] is projected to experience catastrophic employee attrition as a result of the short-notice move of three-quarters of all […] employees out of the National Capital Region,” AFGE said in a statement on Wednesday.

The relocation is the final step of a plan that USDA announced nearly a year ago, purportedly aimed at streamlining the department and cutting costs. However, staffers suspect that the changes are also an attempt to stymie their research, which often contradicted the Trump administration’s messaging on issues like food stamps and climate change.

To add insult to injury, by declining to relocate, ERS employees could potentially risk marring their federal employment records.

“If you decline this reassignment, the agency will initiate an adverse action proposing your separation based on your declination,” reads an internal document distributed to staffers and shared with The New Food Economy.

“Bottom line, typically having an adverse action on your record as a federal employee precludes your ability to be able to obtain federal employment in the future. Period.”
“Adverse action” refers to the procedures that managers use to terminate or suspend government employees, usually in the case of poor performance or misconduct. One current ERS employee, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed concern that having “adverse action” noted on their government record would be detrimental to future job prospects.

“Basically the form states that if you don’t move, you’re separating from the government and it uses this particular terminology—it’s the same terminology that is used when you are fired for underperformance,” the employee said.

Joanna Friedman, a partner at the Federal Practice Group law firm, which specializes in federal employment law, said that the staffer’s concerns were valid. (Friedman, who I contacted independently, does not represent the ERS employee.) 

“Bottom line, typically having an adverse action on your record as a federal employee precludes your ability to be able to obtain federal employment in the future. Period.”

It’s possible that USDA could soften an adverse action designation with some kind of appendix or footnote on ERS employees’ records, both Friedman and the staffer speculated. But that’s far from guaranteed at this point. (I’ve reached out to USDA for comment and will update this story if the agency responds.)

In May, ERS staffers voted overwhelmingly to unionize, a move that they hoped would increase their bargaining power in the face of the relocation. Nonetheless, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has forged ahead with the unpopular move. After an Amazon HQ2-like request for proposals, he announced two weeks ago that the Kansas City region would serve as the new home to ERS offices.

Despite taking 10 months to decide on a location, USDA is giving workers flagged for relocation got just one month to decide whether to stay in D.C.—and thus, lose their jobs—or move to Kansas City. They have until July 15 to submit their choices.

“It just feels full toxic just because everyone is in such a low place.”
For the employees who do elect to move with the agency, relocation comes with its own set of problems. The Kansas City Public Schools district begins instruction on August 12, which means that those with children will need to transplant their lives within the next few weeks, another ERS employee, who also wished to remain anonymous, pointed out.

In addition, where exactly within the Kansas City metropolitan area future ERS offices will be situated is still undetermined. That’s a major obstacle for staffers looking to settle down in the region.

The first employee noted that office morale is at an all-time low.

“Everyone here is just so depressed,” they said. “It just feels full toxic just because everyone is in such a low place…. It’s not like people are slacking, you know, people are coming and doing their work.”

For this employee, moving out of D.C. isn’t an option. Like many of their colleagues, they’re looking for other positions, albeit reluctantly. The employee underscored the point that while few people know ERS by name, its research on everything from international markets to food security is crucial for policymakers, producers, and eaters alike.

“I feel like my job is a public good and it is a shame to abandon it.”

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Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.