The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created chaos, confusion, and frustration among employees as its officials, including Secretary Sonny Perdue, made contradicting statements and walked back on their proposals in an attempt to rush scientists and researchers out of Washington, D.C. by the end of September.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in June announced his decision to relocate most employees of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to a yet-to-be-determined location in the Kansas City region.
To many employees, this is a move to politicize their research and retaliate against them for their studies that contradict the administration’s political positions on issues like climate change and tax cuts. Many researchers and scientists have quit since news broke last year about his misguided relocation plan. Those who decided to stay voted to form a union to have a voice at the table and make their concerns heard.
According to USDA’s plan, employees had until July 15 to either accept or decline relocation, but officials told reporters and employees they could change their minds before the report date of Sept. 30. In fact, USDA says in its relocation Q&A that:
“Employees can change their minds regarding their decision up until the Friday before the report date but should be aware of possible consequences. Employees changing their minds from a yes to a no will go through the adverse action procedures beginning with the proposal to remove letter. The estimated length of the process is up to 45 days. Final action on a removal notice could impact when the employee may receive severance if eligible. Specific circumstances will be addressed on a case by case basis.”
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue reiterated the policy to Sen. Chris Van Hollen on July 16 and assured the senator of the flexibilities including telework.
But now USDA said the employees were to have decided by July 15. In a July 24 letter to Van Hollen, Perdue said the July 15 deadline “did not get extended.”
The ERS also walked back on a tentative agreement reached with AFGE on July 24.
ERS management, including acting ERS Administrator Ephraim Leibtag, agreed to:
- Request from USDA the authority to allow employees who have agreed to relocate to telework for six months or until a permanent location in the Kansas City area is operational.
- Provide temporary housing for employees for at least 60 days.
- Request from USDA the authority to offer a one-month salary bonus for relocation.
- Codify that employees have until Sept. 27 to change their minds.
Both sides were supposed to sign the agreement on July 25, but ERS management cancelled the meeting, and the agreement was never signed.
“Since ERS and NIFA employees are supposed to complete their applications for other USDA jobs by July 31, the whole thing became moot,” said Peter Winch, special assistant to AFGE’s national vice president for District 14.