Relocation plans haven’t changed after IG report, USDA tells employees

The recent report from the Agriculture Department’s inspector general isn’t putting a dent in the agency’s plans to relocate two of its research bureaus to Kansas City by the end of the fiscal year.

In a highly anticipated report released earlier this week, the IG said the department didn’t have the budget authority to spend appropriated funding on the USDA relocation. The inspector general cited a provision in the 2018 omnibus, which was designed to prevent agencies from using appropriated dollars for reprogramming, reorganization or relocation without first gaining approval from Congress.

USDA’s general counsel, however argued the 2018 provision was unconstitutional. It cited a 1983 Supreme Court decision, past literature from the Government Accountability Office and a Justice Department legal opinion as its justification.

USDA’s opinion is “binding on the department,” Scott Hutchins, USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics, wrote in an email to employees, which Federal News Network obtained.

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The IG didn’t explicitly challenge that legal theory, a point the department also reiterated.

“As a result, no one should be concerned about being accused of, or punished, for violating the Antideficiency Act when they incur and submit requests for reimbursement for relocation costs,” Hutchins wrote in an Aug. 7 email. “The department will continue to move forward with the relocation timeline and continue to actively work with all employees to ensure they have access to available resources during the transition.”

Both ERS and NIFA have been working to prepare available space at the Beacon Center in Kansas City, Missouri, as employees who have agreed to relocate begin to move.

The first relocating NIFA employee began work in Kansas City this week, while the first ERS employee will start at the new site next week, a USDA spokesman said in an email to Federal News Network.

ERS has also onboarded nine new employees in Kansas City since July 22, the spokesman added.

The Beacon Center is USDA’s existing space in Kansas City, but Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has described it as a temporary solution for ERS and NIFA employees. The General Services Administration has initiated a competitive bidding process new lease space in the region on behalf of the department. The goal, Perdue has said, is to find a new space that will house ERS and NIFA headquarters in place.

Proposals were due earlier this week.

Meanwhile, employees who have declined relocation have slowly been receiving their termination letters.

ERS and NIFA employees had until July 15 to inform USDA of their intent to accept or reject relocation to Kansas City. The department spokesman reiterated employees could change their minds until Sept. 27, the last Friday before the expected report date in the new location.

“The final decision letters are a part of USDA human resources standard procedure for employees who have declined relocation,” the spokesman said. “They are handled on a case by case basis and issued in the same order as employees’ proposal to relocate letters.  These letters are utilized by eligible employees who have declined relocation to receive severance or file for unemployment benefits upon separation from the agency.”

Roughly 58% of the employees at the Economic Research Service who had been chosen to relocate have 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.

Employees who have declined the USDA relocation have until Friday to apply to open Career Transition Assistance Program (CTAP) positions not posted on USAJOBS.gov, Hutchins said.

“Mission areas will then review and adjudicate the applications and employees will receive the written results of their application status, including whether they were determined to be “well qualified” for a vacancy, no later than Aug. 23,” he wrote in the email to employees. “Hiring managers will make decisions no later than Sept. 6.”

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