‘I understand that no one likes their cheese moved, so it’s not unanimously acclaimed…’
(Bryan Lowry, McClatchy Washington Bureau) Federal employees turned their backs in silent protest against Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as he addressed employees Thursday about relocating their jobs from Washington to Kansas City.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s selection of Kansas City — far closer than D.C. to where there are actual farms — as the new home for 550 federal research jobs, has been a major victory for policymakers in Kansas and Missouri.
But for USDA employees with family and professional ties to the D.C. region, the Trump’s administration’s plan to move their jobs from Washington to the Midwest is bitter news.
Dozens of USDA staff turned their backs as Perdue touted Kansas City’s food and arts scenes, praised the region’s school districts and promised employees that their importance to the federal government would not be lessened by the move.
“What’s most frustrating, I think, is they want to move us so quickly,” said Claudia Hitaj, an economist with the Economic Research Service who was among the employees who stood in protest of Perdue. Employees were to told they can move as early as mid-July.
“We get the letter today and if we want to we can move in mid-July? That is physically impossible. Find a new house over there, get your kids into a new school. It seems like a slap in the face.”
While the USDA is moving quickly to execute the move, it hasn’t yet decided which side of the state line to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), two of the department’s principal research agencies.
Perdue called the move a strategic, long-term decision for the USDA. He touted Kansas City as a booming city with a strong agriculture sector and close proximity to land grant universities that work closely with NIFA, but he acknowledged the move would be difficult for some employees.
“I understand the decision creates personal disruption for some of you as well as your families,” he said.
The USDA will be pairing employees with relocation specialists to help the employees who choose to remain with the agency to navigate the move.
In a phone call with reporters, Perdue downplayed the backlash from employees and said current employees who don’t want to move to Kansas City employees will have opportunities to find other jobs in the federal government.
“I understand that no one likes their cheese moved, so it’s not unanimously acclaimed,” he said. “I think again the other thing you have to consider is, in the national capital region as federal employees they do have many choices and it’s not like a company closing in rural America where there are no other jobs there.”
Critics of the relocation plan see it as an attack on science and warn that it’ll hamper the agencies’ ability to communicate with Congress and other federal research agencies.
“It seems like disregard for what we do, for the value we contribute to USDA, what it means for us to be in D.C. to be able to talk to all of the other research agencies that are here, be on hand to talk to Congress, be on hand to talk to the secretary,” Hitaj said.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the Senate Agriculture chairman, said that he warned Perdue he would face a backlash from employees when the relocation was first floated.
“I said, ‘You are going to get pushback, but I’ll tell you one thing. They will not miss Washington traffic or the style of living if they move to Johnson County,’” Roberts said.
Employees at both of the agencies have unionized in recent weeks in protest of the relocation and Congressional Democrats are pursuing legislation in both the House and Senate to block it from happening.
That legislation stands a stronger chance in the Democratic-controlled House, where House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, is an outspoken critic of the Trump’s administration’s plan to move federal jobs out of the capital region.
Hoyer accused the administration of rushing its relocation plans in an attempt to circumvent congressional opposition.
“This relocation will prove to be not only disruptive to the important work being done by both agencies on behalf of the American people, but harmful to the morale of our federal civilian workforce,” Hoyer said in a statement Thursday.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, said a coalition of lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia are working hard to prevent the relocation, but lawmakers from Kansas and Missouri will be doing their best to make sure it happens.
“It puts me at odds with Steny Hoyer, one of my closest friends, but they all understand that I’m going to stand up for Kansas City,” Cleaver said.
(The Kansas City Star’s Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.)
©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Liberty Headlines editor Paul Chesser contributed.