USDA’s research employees were just offered drastically reduced buyouts

Sonny Perdue

USDA / Flickr

Sonny Perdue

USDA / Flickr

$25,000 was abruptly dropped to $10,000. Workers get one week to decide if they'll accept the terms.

For the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), virtually every piece of news reflects a worsening situation. In the latest wrinkle, $25,000 buyout payments, offered to ERS employees in June, were abruptly reduced to $10,000, according to an internal memo obtained by Government Executive.

These “Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments,” or VSIP, are being offered to ERS employees who a) completed a program application and b) were determined by USDA to be eligible. The buyouts are supposed to provide compensation for workers who do not want to relocate to Kansas City this fall.

“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,” reads the VSIP acceptance letter that went out to approved employees this week. 

This is only the latest in an ongoing saga that began when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced last August that ERS and another sub-agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), would be undergoing a complete overhaul, including a relocation to parts unknown. House Democrats unsuccessfully tried to block the move, which was seen as retaliation for releasing independent research that didn’t match Trump administration talking points on climate change, SNAP, and other hot-button issues. 

“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.” -USDA spokesperson
This June, Perdue announced the agencies would be moving to Kansas City, after a highly publicized, Amazon-style city search. Though an internal watchdog determined the relocation plans may be illegal, USDA is pushing ahead. Recently, a small concession was made, allowing ERS and NIFA workers the option to telecommute through the end of 2019. Workers who rejected the move initially were also given a grace period until the end of September to change their minds.

This brings us to the present. Two-thirds of eligible employees have rejected the offer to relocate, which USDA claims has led to the shortage in VSIP funds. An agency spokesperson told The New Food Economy by email: “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.” In essence, the claim is that reducing the amount of individual buyouts allowed for more employees to receive them.

The timeline for this shortage in funds is a little iffy, as the head of the union representing ERS and NIFA employees told Government Executive. “Two-thirds of employees rejected the agency’s orders to move by September 30, so USDA should have planned better for that reality and budgeted accordingly,” said J. David Cox, president of American Federation of Government Employees. To be eligible for VSIP payments, employees had to apply by mid-July, so the agency has known for weeks how many workers to allocate buyout funds for (43 ERS employees and 48 NIFA employees, according to the USDA spokesperson)

Another issue with these payments is a tough stipulation: After receiving the funds, you cannot work for the federal government for five years. One current ERS employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said he might have accepted a buyout except for that.

“Buyout requires you not to come back to federal service for five years. I’d consider coming back under a different administration,” the employee wrote, also noting that the reduced payments “appear spiteful.”

Another ERS worker took issue with the many back-and-forths and mixed messages her colleagues have received since the process began. “People are definitely upset,” she wrote to The New Food Economy. “The biggest issue is that [the USDA] make decisions as they go, without stopping to think about it and it shows.”

The VSIP acceptance form must be returned by August 26.

Jessica Fu and Sam Bloch contributed to this story.

Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.