Government & Politics

Fewer than half of USDA workers will follow agency to Kansas City

Fewer than half of the USDA researchers offered transfers from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City will follow their jobs here, the agency announced Tuesday.

But those who did decide to make the 1,000-mile journey still don’t know exactly where they’ll be working.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on June 13 that the ag department would ship more than 500 jobs from Washington to Kansas City. Local leaders in Kansas and Missouri cheered the bi-state recruitment effort, though it sparked an immediate backlash from employees in D.C.

A USDA spokesperson told The Star that 72 employees in the ag department’s Economic Research Service accepted their transfer to Kansas City. Another 99 turned down the offer — a number that included employees who did not respond by a Monday deadline. In USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 73 employees signed on to the transfer while another 151 turned it down.

In total, the agency reports 145 workers will follow their jobs to Kansas City, while 250 will leave the agency, meaning 36.7% accepted their transfer assignments. As USDA announced earlier, the two agencies will keep a combined 97 positions in the Washington area.

Some of USDA’s positions were already vacant, as workers began leaving the two agencies in the fall, when news of the relocation first emerged. In June, the agency announced 547 jobs would move to Kansas City. With only 145 signing up to move, that means it may have to hire as many as 400 workers.

Those numbers confirmed earlier predictions that many workers would flee USDA’s ranks rather than move to Kansas City.

USDA says the figures may fluctuate until Sept. 30, the last date employees can report to Kansas City. Employees can change their decision up until that date.

“With employee decisions made, the Department will work to promptly implement an aggressive hiring strategy to ensure continuity of work during the transition,” USDA said in a statement Tuesday.

The USDA spokesperson told The Star that human resources was working with both agencies to begin bringing on employees July 22 — the first date new and relocating employees may begin work in Kansas City.

Economic development officials from Kansas and Missouri joined forces to lure the two agencies to the region. But now, cities on both sides of the state line are working to land the final site of USDA’s offices. While all property owners can place bids, sources previously told The Star that six sites across the metro got USDA’s attention.

Tim Cowden, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said his organization has been working with affected USDA employees over the last month. He said an acceptance rate below 40 percent is in line with that of a typical headquarters relocation.

“We are committed to working with all USDA employees interested in relocating to KC. In fact, we have a team dedicated to them,” Cowden said in an email. “We expect there will be others who may elect to relocate to KC and our community is ready to welcome them.“

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and more than a dozen other Democratic lawmakers wrote to the agriculture secretary urging him to slow down the relocation process.

While those members of Congress pledged to continue efforts to halt the move, in the meantime they asked the ag secretary to allow researchers to work remotely or from existing offices in the D.C. area until the feds have secured a permanent home in Kansas City.

USDA is looking for about 115,000 square feet of office space on either side of the state line.

The General Services Administration, the federal government’s real estate arm, will consider sites in a city center or suburban office park setting. GSA recently extended the deadline for developers to propose sites for the new USDA offices by one month. Those proposals are now due Aug. 7, though employees will begin working at temporary offices this fall in Kansas City.

“This predicament makes it nearly impossible for your employees to determine where they will be living, where to send their children to school, and other important decisions until they know where the final office space will be located in Kansas City,” Van Hollen’s letter said.

Experts believe the USDA’s move may portend a “new frontier of economic development” in which cities and states vie to lure federal offices away from Washington, D.C. On Monday, Republican senators announced that the federal Bureau of Land Management would ship jobs to three western states as it seeks to relocate its headquarters from the nation’s capital.

The agriculture department has argued that moving to Kansas City will put researchers closer to farmers and drastically reduce expenses given the Midwest’s relatively lower cost of living.

But many scientists — including the Union of Concerned Scientists — suspect that USDA’s relocation is meant to diminish USDA research.

The Milwaukee-based Agricultural and Applied Economic Association predicted the move could cost U.S. taxpayers upward of $182 million in lost productivity and research capacity.

And Tuesday’s letter from Democrats claims that it could take as long as two years to build out new office space in Kansas City.

“We remain concerned that this restructuring will gut the ability of these agencies to successfully carry out their important missions,” the Democrats said. “We also remain concerned that the quality of work being done at ERS and NIFA has already been undermined and will continue to degrade.”

USDA did not respond to questions from The Star about the timeline to establish permanent office space.

But GSA’s request for bids on the project calls for an extended construction period: from the time a lease is awarded, property owners have up to 330 days to make physical improvements.

Employee transfer notices showed USDA workers might temporarily work out of existing USDA office space on Beacon Drive near Swope Park in south Kansas City.

The Star’s Bryan Lowry and Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.
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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas