Worker advocates say the goal is the same in both cases: to force people to quit their jobs, thereby shrinking the federal workforce.
The Department of Agriculture is relocating two research bureaus from Washington to the Kansas City area, a move that workers ― whose research findings are sometimes contrary to the administration’s agenda ― have protested. Some have already quit.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services has told employees in some of its regional offices that they need to relocate to Washington.
HHS’s Administration for Community Living, which runs programs for the elderly and disabled, “has made the decision to reorganize and centralize our program support functions which will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the support provided to states, tribes, and other stakeholders,” according to a May 10 letter that went to one of the workers who’s been asked to relocate.
The letter gave the worker only until June 6 to decide, with an Aug. 4 deadline to be in Washington. Similar letters went to 20 workers in the ACL’s 10 regional offices.
The relocation is part of the Trump administration’s strategy of undermining federal workers, said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers across the federal government.
“Ordering employees to uproot their families and move across the country or risk losing their jobs is part of this unfortunate pattern that points to a determination to shrink the federal workforce without ordering a reduction-in-force,” Reardon said.
Reardon said workers deserve telecommuting opportunities as an alternative to moving, as well as more time to decide whether they will relocate. He also said the union might pursue grievances on the workers’ behalf if the options aren’t adequate.
Civil service and union protections can make it difficult to fire government employees, even for an administration as determined as Donald Trump’s. So from its first days, this White House has used attrition as a strategy to jettison workers ― by implementing a hiring freeze in Trump’s first year and also being slow to fill open jobs.
Though there may be legitimate reasons for an office move, upending workers’ personal lives can be an effective way to nudge them into a job change or early retirement. (So can a record-setting government shutdown.)
In early May, the Administration for Community Living quietly announced in a Federal Register notice that the agency would be restructured. The explanation is bureaucratic, saying the changes will “improve efficiency” and “improve the connections between the organization and its stakeholder, grantees and consumers at the national, state and local levels.”
The Obama administration created the office in 2012 to unify services for seniors and people with disabilities under the Older Americans Act, a longstanding federal law designed to help people live independently in their homes, partly by funding community programs like Meals on Wheels. It’s not obvious how removing regional workers is going to make them more connected to local consumers.
“The motivation for the reorganization is not clear,” said Brian Lindberg, director of the D.C.-based Consumer Coalition for Quality Health Care. He said the reorganization essentially dissolves the office of the long-term care ombudsman, a program that helps family members report problems in nursing homes, instead putting the work under a deputy assistant secretary.
During a routine oversight hearing shortly before the announcement, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) asked what was going on and whether the ACL had consulted stakeholder advocacy groups.
ACL Administrator Lance Robertson said he had not consulted with anyone. “I can reassure you and everyone that we’re actually not eliminating programs, we’re not reducing staff,” Robertson said. “We’re actually really just striving to be better in what we do and how we do it.”
Congressional staff say that only nine of the ACL staff who received notification have agreed to move to Washington. The Office of Regional Operations ― set to be renamed the Center for Regional Operations ― had 22 total workers in 2018, according to the ACL’s most recent budget report. The broader ACL has fewer than 200 workers.
An HHS spokeswoman said five regional administrators would remain in their jobs and that five more would be added so that each regional office would have one administrator. Most regional staff work, the spokeswoman said, is already done by phone and email, which would remain the case with work centralized in Washington.
“There will be consequences associated with this, but nobody’s really going to know until the time comes when somebody goes looking for assistance and they don’t get it anymore,” said Robert Blancato, director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.
In a report accompanying a funding bill that the House passed last month, the appropriations committee chastised the ACL and said that in the future it should only reorganize itself “in the context of the annual budget process and with input from stakeholders.” It’s not clear if the reorganization that took place during the Obama administration had any outside input.
The ACL restructuring happened around the same time that HHS also consolidated regional offices that handle family planning, which resulted in six National Treasury Employees Union workers receiving relocation orders. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in an April letter that “it is difficult to understand how this reorganization does anything other than consolidate control at HHS headquarters and prioritize ideology over the needs of the women, teenagers, and children the affected programs serve.”
Researchers in the Agriculture Department have experienced the opposite disruption to their lives and careers: being required to move to a new office about 1,000 miles away from Washington.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced earlier this month that two of its agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, would be relocated to the Kansas City area ― a plan that drew fierce opposition from employees and even prompted them to unionize last month by an overwhelming margin.
Politico reported last week that a survey of ERS employees suggested that 4 out of 5 on the relocation list may end up leaving their jobs instead. All told, the agency gave 200 employees their moving papers while inviting 76 to hang back in Washington.
Several workers at the agency, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, told HuffPost they felt the move was intended to accomplish just that. Employees had raised families in the Washington area and felt the region was also important to their careers, working closely with other government and nonprofit economists and researchers based in the region. Many of them said they were looking for new jobs even before the move to Kansas City was announced.
The research ERS produces on rural America informs policy decisions on issues like farming, trade, commodities and food stamps. Many employees came to feel the Trump administration did not care for the research they did ― such as a study that found that food benefits helped boost employment in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Trump and Republicans have been trying to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
One worker told HuffPost in May that the proposed move made them realize “how little leverage we have.”
“They know full well you do real damage to an agency when you move it,” the employee said. “The notion that this is about making [the agency] more effective, that’s patent nonsense.”
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