After the relocation gutted its workforces, USDA research agencies struggle to rebuild

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It’s been more than a year since the Agriculture Department gave some 550 employees at two of its major research bureaus an ultimatum: Move to Kansas City, Missouri, or leave the agency.

Many employees at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — between 40 and 60%, respectively — did leave, data from USDA shows.

And while ERS and NIFA have onboarded new people since the relocation occurred in October 2019, both agencies have struggled to rebuild their workforces and hire new people in the days since.

They’re both operating with roughly 30% fewer employees today than they were before the USDA relocation, according to recent data from the department.

As of Jan. 16, ERS had a total of 213 permanent employees on board, including 67 employees stationed in Washington. The agency has 115 vacant positions today, said Matt Herrick, a USDA spokesman.

At NIFA, the story is similar. The agency also has 213 permanent employees on board, including 16 stationed in Washington. A total of 130 NIFA positions are vacant, the department said.

The Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have each lost nearly a third of their workforces since the relocation to Kansas City, Missouri, in fall 2019, data from the Agriculture Department shows.

“USDA has an outstanding workforce, but we lost some of the nation’s best economists and agricultural scientists in the previous administration,” Herrick said in a statement to Federal News Network. “It will take time for the new administration to rebuild USDA’s scientific and research agencies and restore their confidence and morale. That means beginning to fill open positions and building a scientific and research workforce for the future. The new team is committed to making USDA a place where bright, talented people want to work and where scientific integrity is safeguarded.”

For now, the agencies are, in many ways, running without the institutional knowledge that made ERS and NIFA special places to work, current and former employees said.

Of NIFA’s Kansas City workforce of approximately 200 people, just 20% are employees who made the move from Washington.

At ERS, just 13% of the Kansas City workforce are employees from Washington, USDA said.

“It’s still really difficult. We lost a ton of people and with that we lost a ton of expertise,” said Laura Dobson, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents much of the ERS workforce. “A new employee can’t replace the expertise of an old employee. Yes, we’ve done a lot of hiring , but that doesn’t mean that we’re able to get our jobs done the same way we would have before this relocation. A lot of us are still struggling with overwork and overburdening and the ability to finish all our projects from employees who no longer work here.”

Of NIFA employees stationed in Kansas City, approximately 80% are new hires who joined the agency after the fall 2019 relocation, USDA said.

At ERS, 85% of the 145 permanent employees in Kansas City are new hires, the department said.

The number of new hires has created stress for the more seasoned employees.

“Economists are not interchangeable,” Dobson said. “There is a specialized knowledge that each position requires at ERS, and that specialized knowledge would be acquired over the course of a career. This relocation has caused all of the experienced and mid-level employees to leave the agency, leaving junior staffers to fill the roles of experienced staffers. It means that it’s going to be more difficult to complete all the projects that we had.”

Some employees, for example, are new supervisors learning how to manage at a federal research agency for the first time.

The situation has a created two camps of morale, where the seasoned employees are frustrated, overwhelmed, overworked and disillusioned with the agency, Dobson said. New hires, on the other hand, are learning to navigate a new job and are more comfortable with the way things are.

For some, Kansas City is a good fit, but others had a difficult time with the move and are waiting for an opportunity to move back to Washington, Dobson added.

The positions themselves are difficult to fill regardless of their location, said Kitty Smith Evans, a former ERS administrator and current government relations director for the American Economic Association.

“The universe of qualified people is not that huge,” she said. “There are very few PhD agricultural economists and the market for general economists is competitive, and I don’t think ERS is competitive in that market anymore.”

Before the relocation, economists came to ERS knowing they could spend a long career collecting and analyzing statistics, which USDA decision-makers used to inform policy. These were things ERS used to sell the agency to prospective candidates, Smith Evans said.

“You can really make a difference,” she said. “It’s exciting to people. I don’t know that you can do that as well in Kansas City. Of course nobody can walk up the block and do anything in person now, but you used to be able to go talk with important policy makers within the department. You’re right there, doing it in person and having the opportunity to answer questions rather than sending a report, [which] is really important.”

Employees looking to new leadership to ‘undo the damage’

ERS has hired employees on a remote basis who have worked from various locations across the country during the pandemic, but the previous administration said those arrangements were temporary, Dobson said.

Employees were frustrated with the uncertainty, as it was unclear how long the department would allow them to continue teleworking on a full-time basis — and what the health and safety precautions would look like once they returned to the office.

Full-time remote work could solve a lot of recruitment challenges at ERS and USDA, and more broadly across the federal government, Dobson said.

“It’s a huge draw to be able to work and live from wherever you are, and it opens the door to talent who may not otherwise be able to live in certain areas,” she said. “But that’s way beyond my pay grade to be able to push for that.”

Dobson said employees are anxious to see how the incoming USDA leadership team will approach telework in a post-pandemic world. Tom Vilsack, who led the department for eight years during the Obama administration, was supportive of telework during his tenure, at least more so than former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who cut back on remote work before the pandemic.

The Senate is expected to confirm Vilsack again to be USDA secretary in the coming days.

If telework is permitted beyond the pandemic, Dobson hopes employees will have some assurances of how often they’ll be able to work remotely. She said she was encouraged by a message USDA acting leadership sent to employees in the days following the inauguration.

“I got the first email from our acting secretary saying, ‘We appreciate you. We want you to be safe, and we’re going to be following the science.’ I just started crying,” Dobson said. “I was like, ‘It’s a new day. I can take a breath. I don’t have to fight every moment.’”

In the meantime, Dobson and her colleagues are also curious how new leadership will handle the dual Washington and Kansas City locations. ERS and NIFA employees moved to a new leased space in Kansas City back in November, USDA told Federal News Network.

The General Services Administration signed a 15-year, $25.6 million lease for that space back in October 2019, which may complicate matters.

Dobson said the incoming USDA leadership team has to undo the damage from the relocation and find ways to support existing employees and attract new ones.

“It’s going to take a long time,” Smith Evans, the former ERS administrator, said. “Whether it’s done well or badly, or whether it’s in D.C. or spread in two locations, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be easier in D.C. It’ll be easier with experienced managers and leadership and with an improved reputation, but it’s going to be a long haul in any case.”

Ultimately, Dobson hopes the department will give employees the choice of working in either Kansas City or Washington, which she acknowledged is a tricky and complex logistical question.

“It’s become an incredibly messy situation where there is no clear path forward, but our current path is unsustainable,” Dobson said. “We need to be able to bring in experienced staffers. We need to be able to maintain a high quality of life for our current staffers. Part of the only way I really see forward with this is expanding the amount of staffers we’re allowed to have in D.C. and hiring people back into D.C. who may not have otherwise made the move to Kansas City.”

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