by Jessica Fu
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) will allow researchers at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to request to work remotely from D.C. through the end of the year, the employees’ union announced on Friday. For those approved for teleworking, this move will provide flexibility around USDA’s controversial plans to relocate both agencies to Kansas City by September 30. Those who previously rejected relocation now have until the end of September to reconsider their choice.
“The agencies have already hemorrhaged significant talent and expertise.”“This is certainly a positive development that could encourage more employees to relocate, but it does not make up for all the anxiety and anguish that employees have been going through since this relocation was first announced,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), in the press release. AFGE represents over 400 employees in ERS and NIFA cumulatively, though exact numbers are hard to estimate due to fluctuations in attrition and hiring.
According to a USDA spokesperson, a decision about teleworking requests “will be considered on an individual, case by case basis.”
Nearly one year ago, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans to move ERS and NIFA to the Midwest, describing the decision as a cost-saving measure. However, affected employees saw the relocation as an effort to quash their research, which has challenged many of the current presidential administration’s talking points on climate change, food stamps, and the trade war.
In response, ERS and NIFA employees voted to unionize, in hopes of using collective bargaining power to push back against upper management’s changes—though USDA is still ploughing forward with the relocation. (It should be mentioned, the agency made this decision despite low employee morale, the ire of elected officials, and a damning internal watchdog report finding that USDA may have broken the law with the move.)
Teleworking possibility is one of a handful of concessions to which the department agreed in negotiations with the employees’ unions. Others include details about temporary housing, nursing rooms for breastfeeding employees, and bonuses equivalent to one month’s salary for employees who agree to relocate. According to the agreements, which can be found here (ERS) and here (NIFA), the bonuses are limited to jobs that are considered “difficult to fill,” based on criteria established by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). However, since most ERS and NIFA employees are considered scientific researchers under OPM guidelines, most will likely qualify, AFGE organizer Peter Winch tells The New Food Economy.
Significantly, the agreement also gives ERS and NIFA employees who previously rejected moving to Kansas City a chance to change their minds. This provision is arguably an attempt to retain researchers, who have overwhelmingly signaled their opposition to leaving the Beltway.
“The agencies have already hemorrhaged significant talent and expertise,” a Ariela Zycherman, a current NIFA employee and union steward, told The New Food Economy. “In order to keep doing the important work our agencies do, we hope this agreement will help some employees make the difficult decision to transition and ease the transition for those who have already agreed to do so.”
Others, however, were less optimistic, and believed that while some researchers may agree to relocate in exchange for a teleworking option, they may only do so with the intention of buying more time to consider other options in D.C.
“I don’t know if it’s a game changer for anybody,” said an ERS researcher who has found another job and expects to resign shortly. “The one thing it will probably do is it’ll allow people longer, more time to look for jobs.”
Sam Bloch contributed reporting to this story.