USDA, AFGE agree to terms designed to make upcoming relocation easier on employees

The Agriculture Department and the union representing workers at the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture have reached an agreement that may make the upcoming move to Kansas City a little easier on its employees.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at both ERS and NIFA, announced Friday evening that it had reached an agreement with USDA leadership.

The agreements don’t guarantee additional benefits for relocating employees, but they describe the terms and a specific path forward for employees to request flexibilities.

The agencies agreed to, for example, consider employee requests to work remotely for three months before making the move to Kansas City. The department will consider employee telework requests on a case by case basis and may consider additional extensions for remote work past Dec. 30, 2019.

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ERS and NIFA also agreed to work with the department and the Office of Personnel Management to approve relocation incentive payments, worth a full month’s salary,  for employees who accepted a Kansas City reassignment and hold positions that are considered difficult to fill.

Once approved, employees must sign an agreement to remain at their jobs in Kansas City for at least a year. They’ll receive relocation incentive payments after six months of work, according to the union agreements.

In addition, ERS and NIFA agreed to provide temporary housing for up to 60 days for employees who accepted USDA relocation. Employees can request another 60-day extension, according to the union agreements.

USDA initially gave ERS and NIFA employees until July 15 to accept or decline relocation to Kansas City. The union agreement allows employees to change their minds at any point until Sept 27, a point that the department had made in statements to Federal News Network and the media but is codified with a signed memorandum of understanding.

Employees who have declined relocation have begun to receive termination letters, which USDA has said are handled on a case by case basis.

Employees who are considering the USDA relocation and want more time to move can make reasonable accommodation (RA) requests with supporting medical documentation to their first-line supervisors.

“The agency agrees to continue existing approved RA arrangements and consider extensions for temporary RA arrangements where the current duty station is other than Washington, D.C., to the extent that the accommodation remains effective, medically necessary and such continuation does not interfere with the mission of the agency,” the agreements read.

In a letter to the department last month, several House Democrats had described stories from employees impacted by the USDA relocation who, citing medical hardships, had asked for more time to consider or make the move.

The new union agreement specifies that USDA consider reasonable accommodation requests immediately and approve them within 20-to-30 days.

Both the department and the union began bargaining over the USDA relocation about a month after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Kansas City as the new site for ERS and NIFA headquarters.

A majority of both ERS and NIFA employees had voted to form collective bargaining units before an official site had been announced. AFGE at the time had told employees it likely couldn’t block the USDA relocation altogether but vowed to give employees more of a voice in the move.

Both the union and lawmakers who have criticized the USDA relocation on Friday reiterated their concerns about the move but seemed relatively pleased with the agreement the two parties had reached.

“This is certainly a positive development that could encourage more employees to relocate, but it does not make up for all the anxiety and anguish that employees have been going through since this relocation was first announced,” J. David Cox, AFGE national president, said Friday in a statement.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) echoed AFGE’s comments.

“While I do not support the relocation of these agencies, I’m glad to see the USDA finally heeding our calls to treat their staff more fairly under the circumstances,” he said Friday in a statement.

It’s still unclear if the agreement will encourage more ERS and NIFA employees to relocate.

Roughly 58% of the employees at the Economic Research Service who had been chosen to relocate had declined, while 67% of the selected workforce at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture had also rejected USDA’s mandatory reassignments to Kansas City.

The department has said it anticipated and planned for attrition due to USDA relocation.

As Federal News Network previously reported, the first two relocating employees began work in Kansas City within the past few days. ERS also onboarded nine new employees to Kansas City since July 22, USDA said.

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