The U.S. Department of Agriculture is renting permanent office space for two of its research agencies in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, despite the union concerns that relocation from the nation's capital has left the agencies critically understaffed and lacking vital expertise.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a news release Thursday that the agencies had been "hard at work" at a temporary site in the city for the past month and that the signing of a permanent lease was "an important next step to facilitate their long-term efficiency, effectiveness, and service to our customers."
The USDA announced plans in June to move roughly 550 employees of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture by the end of September to the Kansas City area. Congressional delegations and the governors of Kansas and Missouri heralded the high-paying jobs and economic boost the relocation would bring to the region, as well as the benefits to the nearby producers the agencies serve.
"The region is not only a hub for agriculture in America's heartland, but it is also proving to be a diverse talent pool in proximity to many land-grant and research universities," Perdue said.
The USDA will also be partnering with the University of Missouri and Kansas State University to host a joint career expo at Kansas State Olathe on Nov. 6.
"It is a great way to introduce our agencies to the communities there," USDA spokeswoman Tara Weaver-Missick said.
But critics complain that the relocation has hollowed out years of specialized experience and that the pace of hiring at the Kansas City site has been too slow.
Laura Dodson, an agricultural economist and union representative at the Economic Research Service, said USDA fired three-quarters of its highly trained research staff who refused to relocate. The department's hiring efforts in Kansas City can't fill that expertise gap in a few months or even in five years, she said.
"These are jobs that always required a national job search, even when we were in D.C.," Dodson said. "There are a handful of experts in each of these fields in the country and convincing somebody to take these jobs when you are still in the crosshairs of this administration is not an easy task. I don't think we will get restaffed to full levels in any reasonable time span."
USDA data suggests hiring has been slow so far. As of the pay period ending Oct. 12, the Economic Research Service had only 30 employees onsite in Kansas City — including 17 new hires — with 69 employees permanently remaining in Washington, D.C. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture had 62 employees, including nine new hires, in Kansas City with 18 employees remaining in the capital.
The department said it is the process of recruiting more than 100 new staffers for both agencies in Missouri. It has extended relocation dates for some existing workers and brought in retirees, short-term contractors and employees from other federal agencies to help with the transition.
"The workload right now is unsustainable — we have people that are doing four or five times as much work as they were doing previously," said Tom Bewick, a union representative at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and national program leader for horticulture.
Among those who were pleased with the selection is U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas who praised it as a positive development for the regional economy and said he was committed to working with his colleagues in a bipartisan way to secure the resources necessary for USDA to complete the move.
"Bringing these two important ag research agencies closer to the people they serve and the leading research institutions that support their mission is the right move," said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly called it a victory for the Kansas City region and both states, saying "we are pleased to welcome the economic impact of these high-paying jobs in our communities and state."
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said, "USDA's investment will benefit both Missouri and Kansas for years to come."