Two-Thirds of ERS Positions Remain Vacant
After moving from Washington to Kansas City five months ago, the Economic Research Service (ERS) has nearly 200 unfilled positions. An internal USDA staffing memo from mid-January acquired by Politico stated that ERS only has 41 out of the 233 positions filled in the new offices, while 72 jobs are in Washington, despite the agency having funding for 329 employees. Additionally, 19 of the positions are occupied by employees who delayed their relocation, or staffers from other agencies.
These reports come at a time when morale at the USDA is already low. Current and former ERS employees described the unforgiving work environment, especially after the loss of researchers with institutional knowledge. Laura Dodson, acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, who represents ERS employees, stated: “it's demoralizing and upsetting and weighs on your soul to walk in every morning to an empty office and discarded belongings of employees who were fired and work on projects that used to be teams of 10 people and now I have to do it by myself.”
As of February 1st, the total number of employees at ERS was 40 in Kansas City and 66 in Washington, similar to the numbers represented by the internal memo. “It's extremely difficult to work in an environment like this,” Dodson said. While ERS is dealing with this shortage, the White House is also calling for cuts to the agency’s budget and staffing. President Donald Trump’s 2021 budget calls for shrinking the number of full-time ERS positions from 329 to 187 and cutting funding by nearly 27 percent.
A USDA spokesperson told Politico 150 people have been recruited, which “represents a snapshot of where [the USDA is] currently in [the] ongoing hiring process,” and is “not a reflection of [the] total hiring strategy.” According to the spokesperson, among employees who decided not to relocate, 61 percent took other positions within the department or federal government. While USDA is hopeful to fill the vacancies and get ERS back to its full capability, a former ERS employee told Politico, “it’s quite clear that the capacity at the Economic Research Service has been diminished. I think there are many in the profession that don’t expect the Economic Research Service to recover.”