USDA shrinks buyout packages for employees who won’t relocate

The US Department of Agriculture is shrinking payments offered to employees who applied for buyouts rather than relocate to the greater Kansas City area, according to a document obtained by CNN.

The one-time payouts are being reduced from $25,000 to $10,000 because so many workers applied, according to the document.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at the affected agencies, says employees of the two research-related agencies that are being moved out of the the Washington area are “extremely upset.”

A USDA spokesperson told CNN that the department said the change was made in order to offer payments to all eligible employees, rather than offer only the higher amount on a first-come, first-served basis. Workers still have the option to refuse the reduced payment if they decide to relocate, the spokesperson added.

The change comes after a union-compiled survey released last month showed an overwhelming number of the reassigned employees will likely choose to leave rather than relocate — losses that could drain institutional knowledge and talent at two units that fund agricultural research across the nation and produce crucial reports, including data on agricultural markets and estimates of US and international agricultural productivity.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has argued that the move will lower living costs and save taxpayer dollars as well as moving the agencies closer to the farmers USDA serves. But many employees at the two affected agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), view the change as politically driven and a way to disrupt climate research and other work with which their bosses disagree by pushing out experienced personnel.

Employees from both agencies turned their backs on Perdue in protest at an all-hands-meeting earlier this summer when he announced the final location for the move.

Former USDA officials and scientific and agricultural associations have come out against the plan, arguing that it may push trained staff out the door and pose a risk to the agency’s independent and objective analysis.

“ERS is ranked as number three in the world of institutions in the field of agricultural economics, a reflection of our leadership in economic research,” 56 former USDA officials wrote in a letter submitted to Congress. “This proposal puts a world-renowned research agency at risk and could set back the federal statistical system at a time when the United States should be leading the world in innovation.”

Earlier this month the USDA inspector general released a report that said the department may have broken the law by not securing congressional approval before spending money to relocate ERS and NIFA. In response, the department has said the provision cited in the report is unconstitutional.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated with details of the completed inspector general report.