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Federal workers with U.S. Department of Agriculture sound alarm about agency relocation

“This is an attack on science and rigorous economic research that informs policies that affect every American,” one USDA employee tells NBC News. The Trump administration says the move will save taxpayers money.
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Today is the last day for hundreds of federal workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make a difficult decision.

Their choice: Agree to leave Washington and report to work in Kansas City on Sept. 30 or be fired with a limited chance to appeal.

The move is part of a “directed reassignment” plan announced by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on June 13 that would relocate 547 employees from two agencies — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — to an office building in Kansas City.

The Trump administration has framed the move as an effort to save taxpayers money and bring researchers closer to the farmers they serve.

But employees within the two agencies are now speaking out, calling the move an effort to “eviscerate” the agency and “silence” researchers doing work that runs counter to the administration’s goals.

Economist Laura Dodson, who agreed to speak to NBC News as a union steward for AFGE Local 3403, says the decision has left her agency in disarray.

“Come Sept. 30, I don't know who my boss is going to be. I don't know if I'm going to have a division director. I don't even know who the administrator of my agency will be,” Dodson said. “I don't know what the status of my projects will be. I don't know if the survey we run every year is going to be able to keep going. I am not even sure where I'll be commuting to.”

Union officials estimate as many as 70 percent of NIFA employees and 60 percent of ERS employees will refuse to relocate and look for work elsewhere, based on data from an informal survey.

In a press release, Perdue described the move as an effort to save taxpayers money and bring researchers closer to stakeholders.

“We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies,” he said.

But three current ERS employees have expressed concerns that the administration has a different motive.

“I don't think anybody believes that their justification is anything more than a fig leaf over the true motives, which are to eviscerate this agency,” one research economist told NBC News.

He and two other USDA employees spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared that sharing their thoughts publicly would be detrimental as they search for another federal job. All three are declining to move to Kansas City.

“I think that a lot of the work that our agency does is profoundly inconvenient to the agenda of the current administration. To be clear, we've been inconvenient to past administrations. But I think that this administration doesn't want to hear nonpartisan facts and analysis that cut counter to their plans and their narrative,” the researcher said. “If they thought that moving us to Kansas City was in the best interests of us fulfilling our congressionally mandated mission, they would do this over the course of years. But they're doing it over the course of months because they know that people are going to quit and that's what they want. They want to silence the work that we do.”

All three employees pointed to work on the 2017 tax law's impact on family farms, a report on agricultural exports in the wake of the trade war with China and a study that found net economic benefits to food assistance as possible reasons for the relocation, although none could provide proof of a direct connection between their publication and the USDA’s actions.

“Nobody's been called into a room and told they can't publish this,” another ERS economist said.

The same employee pointed to the president’s proposed 2020 budget, which calls for a staffing cut at ERS from 329 to 160, a reduction of close to 50 percent.

NBC News has reached out to Perdue for comment but has not heard back.

The employees who choose to relocate are required to report to work at the Kansas City location on Sept. 30. Union representatives have petitioned agency leadership to extend the deadline to decide on whether to move, but the administration has not granted those requests.