WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general concluded Aug. 5 that the Trump administration violated federal budget laws when it decided to relocate 550 workers from Washington to Kansas City—but the USDA, denying the validity of those rules, has begun preparing to fire workers who haven’t agreed to move.
The department has also refused to negotiate with the affected workers’ union or grant any exemptions for medical or family reasons, American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403 President David Verardo told LaborPress.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in in June that most employees of two departmental agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, would be relocated to the Kansas City area. But the inspector general’s report said that while the agency had the legal authority to order the relocations, it had not obtained congressional approval for spending money to prepare for them, as required by the 2018 budget law.
The budget law specifies that federal agencies cannot spend money for anything that “relocates an office or employees” without getting approval from both the House and Senate appropriations committees at least 30 days in advance. The USDA’s hiring a private contractor for $170,000 in October 2018 to help find a new location, the report added, “may have also violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits Government employees from involving the Federal Government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made.”
The department argued that rule was unconstitutional, citing an opinion issued in July by the federal Office of the General Counsel that it gave “one committeeof one house” the power to veto expenditures.
The inspector general’s report responded that appropriations bills have included those provisions since 2015, and the USDA had cited them in court cases to argue why it could not spend money without congressional approval.
“They’re playing a bit of a game. ‘We’ll comply when it suits us,’” Verardo says. “I don’t know in what universe a solitary federal attorney gets to decide what’s constitutional.”
Workers at the two agencies voted to join Local 3403 in June, while the relocation plans were in the works, says Verardo. That means they have the legal right to bargain over the “impact and implementation” of those plans, he adds, but the department has “dragged their feet” on negotiating with the union.
The real reason for the move, Verardo added, “has nothing to do with economic or organizational efficiency. It’s about shrinking the federal workforce.”
He cited statements that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made at a Republican Party event in South Carolina Aug. 2. Mulvaney said that when you tell federal employees “we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out into a real part of the country,” and they quit, it’s “a wonderful way to streamline government.”
The USDA informed employees that those who did not accept the relocation by July 15 would be terminated as of Sept. 27. Department officials told the Federal Times that about 250 of 400 employees affected had not accepted.
On Aug. 6, ERS associate administrator Dr. Greg Pompelli sent AFGE a draft of a letter saying that he would begin telling workers they were being fired for “declining a directed reassignment” on Aug. 7.
Workers have filed for family and medical exemptions to having to move, says Verardo, but “they haven’t even been responded to.” The USDA is not even allowing exemptions for those undergoing intensive treatment for cancer or other illnesses, an agency official who asked for anonymity told LaborPress.
The department is also legally required to pay workers’ expenses both to look for housing in the area they’re being relocated to and moving expenses, says Verardo, but “nobody’s had a chance to look at schools.” This is one of the “impact and implementation” concerns the union could bargain on, he explains, but there’s been “no movement on either of those issues.” Federal employees can’t legally file for reimbursement of those expenses without authorization, he adds.
In an Aug. 5 message to members, AFGE said it had reached a tentative agreement with Economic Research Service acting administrator Ephraim Leibtag on July 24 that would have the department give workers who relocated temporary housing in the Kansas City area for at least 60 days and a bonus of one month’s salary to cover costs. But ERS management cancelled a meeting to sign that agreement.
“This relocation concept has been mismanaged, mishandled, and misused since Day One,” Verardo says. When the National Science Foundation, whose employees are also Local 3403 members, moved its headquarters from Arlington, Virginia, to the adjacent Washington suburb of Alexandria in 2017, the preparation took four years, he notes. USDA employees got 30 days’ notice to accept the transfer and less than four months to move more than 1,000 miles away.
In Kansas City, Verardo adds, the USDA only has about one-third of the office space it needs to house the two agencies. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said the department will use temporary space until it finds a permanent home in the area.
AFGE called the relocations political retaliation for the conclusions of the agencies’ research. The administration’s goal, union President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement, “is to drive out hard-working and dedicated civil servants and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a joint statement Aug. 5 that they were “disappointed” that the Inspector General’s report had failed to address concerns that the relocation might have been intended “to retaliate against agencies producing analyses on SNAP benefits, climate change, and tax policy that contradict the political messaging of the Trump administration”; that while the official rationale was “to improve retention of employees,” more than half of the current workers have indicated they will quit; and that “the site selection process appears to have been biased” against keeping the agencies in the Washington area.