AFGE calls Senate bill to relocate 10 departments a ‘solution in search of problem’

A newly introduced Senate bill would require the relocation of 10 departments and 90% of their Washington, D.C.-based employee positions to economically distressed areas of the country by 2033. But the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, refuted one assertion being used to justify the bill, and called it in a statement “a solution in search of a problem.”

The Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy (HIRE) act, introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Oct. 23 and cosponsored by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), would require the following departments to relocate to the indicated states:

  • Agriculture Department – Missouri
  • Commerce Department – Pennsylvania
  • Education Department – Tennessee
  • Energy Department – Kentucky
  • Department of Health and Human Services – Indiana
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development – Ohio
  • Interior Department – New Mexico
  • Labor Department – West Virginia
  • Transportation Department – Michigan
  • Department of Veterans Affairs – South Carolina

In a press release, Hawley cited recent planned relocations of the Bureau of Land Management within Interior to Colorado, and the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within USDA to Kansas City, as precedent. He also cited savings from lower lease costs outside the national capital region, as well as the potential for economic boosts to distressed areas, as reasoning for the bill.

“Federal jobs provide economic stability and encourage regional growth. When the FBI moved the Criminal Justice Information Services Center to Clarksburg, West Virginia, the stable stream of revenue from those jobs boosted the local economy and helped it grow,” the release said. “Moving agencies also is cheaper long term. Lease costs typically are less outside D.C. Relocating agencies in the Department of Agriculture to Kansas City, according to one report, will save $300 million over 15 years. That report also notes that moving agencies outside D.C. similarly saves costs by decreasing employee attrition. Retaining quality employees is easier when costs of living are low, commute times are short, and federal salaries are high relative to the region.”

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But while AFGE opposes the bill in general, it specifically refuted one final justification cited in the press release. Hawley said that the majority of federal jobs reside in D.C., meaning the majority of American citizens lack access to those jobs.

“Eighty-five percent of federal employees already live outside the nation’s capital — caring for veterans, supporting our military, processing Social Security and other federal benefits, and carrying out other vital work serving citizens across the country,” AFGE President J. David Cox said in a statement. “It is neither cost-effective nor practical to relocate the headquarters of federal agencies away from Washington, where Congress is best equipped to hold political appointees and agency leaders accountable for their actions. This proposed legislation is a solution in search of a problem. Taxpayers would be better served by Congress ensuring federal agencies have the staffing and resources needed to carry out their vital missions.”

AFGE has previously opposed the relocations of ERS and NIFA. In fact, employees at ERS and NIFA formed collective bargaining units with AFGE earlier this year, largely in reaction to USDA’s relocation plans.

How relocations would work

Hawley’s bill gives specific instructions on how agencies would go about the relocation process. Starting with the completion of the 2020 Census, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the administrator of the General Services Administration would have two years to use census data to determine three potential relocation sites for each department within their indicated states, or recommend the department for abolishment or merger with another department.

These three potential sites should fit the following criteria for economic distress: low rate of education, low rate of workforce participation, low median income, high rate of poverty and high rate of housing vacancy. In addition, the bill says the area should have a higher unemployment rate than that of the country as a whole, and it should be no closer than 30 miles to any city with a population of more than 800,000.

These proposals would then be submitted by OMB and GSA to the relevant states, which would have one year to select the final site. If the states do not or cannot select a site, OMB and GSA will then select one themselves.

After the site is selected, agencies would then have a maximum of 10 years to relocate “the headquarters of the covered agency, and the permanent duty station for not less than 90% of the positions as an officer or employee of the covered agency for which the permanent duty station is located in the Washington metropolitan area, without regard to whether the position is vacant,” the bill says.

Should the agencies in question fail to relocate in that 10-year timeline, the bill also provides penalties. For every year after the deadline is missed, the agency would be eligible for only 85% of its total budget in the final year before the deadline. In addition, the leader of the agency would not receive any pay until the agency was relocated, and would not be eligible for back pay after the relocation occurs.

The leader of the agency would also be responsible for yearly reports to Congress during the 10-year period on the relocation efforts.

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