Who’s in and who’s out of the Beltway? Amazon is moving into the Washington region, frustrating locals, and parts of the federal government are moving out, frustrating displaced employees.
That’s one broader takeaway from the past few years as the massive online retailer of everything announced plans to spend billions and take massive tax breaks to install its HQ2 in the Crystal City area of Arlington, Virginia.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration, citing high rents, plans to relocate Department of Agriculture economists and scientists from Washington to the Kansas City area, which has employees up in arms.
Workers at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture were first among those affected by the record-long government shutdown at the beginning of the year. Now more than 500 find themselves with an ultimatum: Move to Kansas City or lose your job. They stood and turned their backs Thursday on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to protest the decision.
Some critics of the move see a gut punch to the alleged “deep state” at work. The Economic Research Service does agricultural and economic forecasts on topics such as climate change. One watchdog group opposed to the move has previously charged that the relocation is a “back-door” way to cut staff.
Among the main reasons in favor of the move is that Kansas City is closer to the heartland. But a more obvious reason is that it will save $300 million over 15 years, according to the USDA. Office space is cheaper in Kansas City, and so are salaries in the long run.
It was the driving up of local costs, on the other hand, that led to a not-in-my-backyard campaign that ended with Amazon scrapping its plans to put part of its HQ2 in in New York. Similar grumbling has not led to the same level of aggravation in Virginia and the Washington area. But there is certainly grumbling.
Employees for the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture won’t have to worry about that.
Kansas City actually threw its hat in the ring but did not make Amazon’s shortlist for HQ2.
The Kansas City metropolitan area’s population is a little over 2 million and the median household income is $63,404.
The Washington metro area, is much larger – more than 6.2 million people with a median household income of $99,969
Attempts to fight the Kansas City plan include workers’ moves to unionize in both agencies since May, along with the efforts of Democratic politicians from the DC area and the uproar of the scientific community. But they seem unlikely to stop the move, which Perdue announced Thursday to the silent protesting backs of the employees and to the applause of Republican lawmakers from Kansas and Missouri.
Employees of the two agencies say they have nothing against Kansas City, they just don’t want to relocate from the power center of the government they’re supposed to serve.
“ERS employees know Washington, DC, is the exact location they need to be to achieve its mission as a designated statistical agency that produces nonpartisan research and analysis,” said Kevin Hunt, the acting vice president of the Economic Research Service union, in a statement.
There is also a concern that if all of the people who do these reports leave at once, there’s an agency brain drain. Even if they quickly hire an equal number of excellent economists and researchers, there’s a loss of institutional knowledge.
Federal workers live everywhere in the US. A US Office of Personnel Management database that tracks federal workers listed a little more than 2 million, not counting the military or contractors, in March 2018. The largest three locations for workers, obviously, are DC (141,000), Virginia (134,000) and Maryland (128,000).
Mobility can be a difficult fact of life in today’s economy
When GM shut down its plant in Lordstown, Ohio, earlier this year, many workers were told they could keep a job with the company but they would have to move to a different plant in a different city, and maybe for less money.
At the root of the divide driving today’s politics is the notion that some states are being left behind by an economy that rewards cities and technology. While it’s difficult for workers in rural states to find jobs close to home, it’s difficult for workers in some blue states to make enough money to live where they grew up.
From that standpoint, putting government jobs that pay well and require advanced education in a red state can be a good thing.
But having to move is hard on people and their families. Tearing spouses away from their own jobs and children from their schools and friends can be heartrending. Not to mention the long task of finding new doctors, places of worship and friends.
The FBI announced in November that it would move 1,350 jobs to Huntsville, Alabama, part of an expansion there that will ultimately create more than 4,000 jobs.
The Interior Department wants to move the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management to a Western state, although most of that agency’s employees already work outside DC Beltway.
As the center of a government that represents all 50 states, Washington and its surroundings are often seen as the temporary landing base for transplants. Uprooting them, however, can be difficult business.
CNN’s Sam Fossum contributed to this report.