POLITICS

USDA Reduces Buyouts For Workers Who Won't Relocate

The agency said it needed to cut the payments so everyone can get one.

So many researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have refused to leave Washington that the agency now says it can’t afford the full buyouts it had offered them.

The USDA ordered hundreds of workers to relocate to the Kansas City area, about a thousand miles from Washington. Those who didn’t want to go could leave their jobs with an incentive payment worth up to $25,000. 

Now the USDA is telling workers the maximum buyout will be only $10,000.  

A spokesperson for the agency said it wanted to “do right” by its employees and offer standard buyouts “to every eligible employee who applied, instead of on a first come first serve basis.” 

Vice News first reported on the reduced buyouts. 

The American Federation of Government Employees union represents some of the workers, who organized earlier this year to try to protect themselves from the Trump administration’s capricious moves. 

“It’s hard to imagine USDA management finding more ways to demoralize the workers at these two agencies, yet they continue to top themselves at every turn,” AFGE president David Cox said. 

Last year the USDA announced plans to move two research bureaus and several hundred workers to Kansas City, ostensibly to move agriculture experts closer to farmland. Workers suspected the real reason was that the Trump administration wanted to make people quit since it can be difficult to fire federal workers. 

Mick Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s budget chief, appeared to confirm those suspicions during a speech earlier this month when he hailed the USDA’s plans to move offices as one of the administration’s greatest accomplishments. “Guess what happened? More than half the people quit!” he said.

“What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time,” Mulvaney said. 

The USDA’s relocation scheme targeted its National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service. The ERS happens to produce research that can be unflattering to the Trump agenda. A recent ERS report, for instance, said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program boosts economic growth. Another credited SNAP benefits for boosting employment after the Great Recession. 

Slashing SNAP spending has been a signature policy goal of Trump’s presidency. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said he wants to reduce “SNAP dependency,” arguing that people who qualify for benefits are poor because food benefits have made them loafers. 

The USDA had previously received approval from the Office of Personnel Management for the buyouts, which are officially known as voluntary separation incentive payments. Workers have to have been employed for three years to be eligible, and $25,000 is the maximum value. 

The USDA spokesperson said the agency doesn’t have to offer buyouts at all, and that anyone who signed up expecting the full amount could back out of their decision. The only catch is they would have to report to work in Kansas City next month. Workers have until 5:00 p.m. on Monday to make up their minds.

“Employees now have less than a week to decide whether to accept the reduced buyout, which also bars them for working at another federal agency for five years,” Cox said. “Many of these employees have spent their careers devoted to agricultural research and furthering their agencies’ missions, and they deserve to be treated better than this.”

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), whose district includes a lot of federal workers, blasted the severance reduction in a statement, saying it was part of a pattern of alarming “disrespect and outright hostility” toward federal workers. 

This story has been updated to include comment from Wexton and to remove a description of the buyout as “early retirement,” since early retirement is a separate option that has been given to some long-tenured USDA workers.

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