USDA looks to staff up with funding boost

The Department of Agriculture is considering how and when to bring feds back to the office, but more telework might be in the offing, the agriculture secretary said Tuesday at a budget hearing.

Editorial credit: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com USDA hq image number 475579099

The Department of Agriculture wants to staff up, Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

The agency's total budget request for fiscal year 2022 includes a request for 99,365 full-time-equivalent employees –- an increase of more than 12,500 employees over FY 2020 levels. The Biden administration is seeking $27.8 billion discretionary budget for FY2022 -- up 16% from 2021. The total funding for UDSA is far larger than that because of mandatory spending on nutrition programs.

Vilsack said that staffing is currently a major challenge for the agency.

"We're confronted with a department that has seen significant reductions in staff across the board," he said. "Some folks at USDA are working two and in some cases three jobs because of cuts. We have made an effort to accelerate staffing, and this budget obviously increases and requests additional assistance … so we can do the work that you all want us to do, and in doing so, improve the morale."

Vilsack did not address and lawmakers did not bring up the Trump administration's move of two USDA components -- the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) -- from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region.

That move did much to bring down morale at USDA. ERS ranked 415 out of 420 agency subcomponents in the most recent Best Places to Work rankings. NIFA ranked next to last. Overall, USDA's overall ranking for employee engagement was 56.5 – second to last among 17 large agencies. That's compared to recent high of 65.9 in 2017.

Vilsack said that he thinks increasing staff will help with morale, as will careful management of telework and the return to offices as the agency moves off its pandemic footing.

"The challenge is making sure that we are respectful to people that want to get back to work and of the customers we serve, but also respectful of the people that still have hesitancy about going back to work," Vilsack said.

In 2018, the agency restricted telework under the leadership of Secretary Sonny Perdue. Vilsack said he is looking at expanding telework.

"Where we are actually surveying our workforce in terms of telework and in terms of space requirements, we may be able to substantially shrink the space requirements of USDA and save money as a result, and provide greater flexibility and still get the work done," Vilsack said.

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