WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed to Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, that as of Aug. 22, 49 employees of the Economic Research Service and 52 employees of National Institute of Food and Agriculture have accepted relocation to the Greater Kansas area.

“We expect these numbers may continue to fluctuate until the Friday before the report date for relocating employees to the Kansas City region (the report date is Sept. 30), as employees are free to change their status in either direction until that date,” a USDA spokesperson said.

The USDA announced its decision to transfer nearly all ERS and NIFA employees to the Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., area from Washington, D.C., in June. The department at that time said that 253 ERS positions and 294 NIFA positions would be transferred to Kansas City, but it was expected those employees accepting relocation would be much fewer.

“These anticipated ranges were taken into account in the department’s long-term strategy, which includes both efforts to ensure separating employees have the resources they need as well as efforts to implement an aggressive hiring strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work,” the USDA spokesperson said.

The USDA indicated the first relocating employees began working in Kansas City in early August.

“Additionally, ERS has onboarded nine new employees and NIFA has onboarded one new employee in Kansas City since the end of July,” the spokesman said.

USDA agencies have been working to prepare space and meet office needs of the new and relocating employees at the Beacon Complex in Kansas City, where the department already has space and employees.

The great majority of ERS and NIFA employees elected not to relocate to Greater Kansas City. Some of those electing to remain in the Washington area applied for voluntary separation incentive payments (VSIPs) to assist them in the period between jobs. The American Federation of Government Employees union, which represents ERS and NIFA employees, lambasted the USDA for reducing the VSIPs offered ERS and NIFA employees to $10,000 from $25,000 per employee, and for prohibiting employees receiving VSIPs from applying for employment at other federal agencies for five years.

While not specifically addressing the union’s charge the VSIP offered employees electing to remain in Washington was sharply reduced, the USDA spokesperson said, “In keeping consistent with the Secretary’s commitment to ‘Do Right’ by our employees, the Department’s priority was to offer a standard VSIP to every eligible employee who applied, instead of on a first-come, first-serve basis. The department has made it a priority to treat all employees fairly and consistently, and offering VSIP to every employee who applied aligns with that commitment and ensures all eligible employees have access to available options.

“The Department has made a consistent effort to give separating employees choices, including not limiting the Career Transition Assistance Program for eligible employees, offering VSIPs to all eligible applicants, and offering eligible employees Voluntary Early Retirement Authority,” the spokesperson added.

The Department noted it was not required to offer VSIPs. The standard maximum VSIP as determined by the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management is $25,000, but the USDA was not required to offer the maximum.  The Department determined it would offer a limited amount of VSIPs and ultimately decided to offer a VSIP to every employee who applied and was found to be eligible to receive one, which included 43 ERS employees and 48 NIFA employees.

To be eligible to apply for VSIPs, employees had to notify their agency of their decision to decline relocation orders by the deadline of July 15. Eligible employees who accept the VSIP payment are able to change their minds and decline the VSIP payment up until their separation or retirement date, and are able to change their mind to accept relocation orders to Kansas City. Eligible employees accepting the VSIP must separate or retire between Sept. 16 and Sept. 27, the Friday before the report date in Kansas City.

Meanwhile, Mick Mulvaney, White House chief of staff, rankled ERS and NIFA employees and critics of the move in Congress by suggesting in Aug. 2 comments that the transfer of the USDA agencies had as a goal reducing the number of ERS and NIFA employees.

Mulvaney was quoted as saying, “Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me. And I’ve tried. And you can’t do it. But simply saying to the people, you know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven and move you out into the real part of the country, and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t be able to do for a long time.”