The answer is 99,439. Pass it on.

January 28, 2009

During his first week on the job, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said no one knows for sure how many people work at the Agriculture Department. Speaking to USDA employees and later to reporters, he used that startling anomaly as an argument to update USDA’s computer equipment.

Like the admonition against saying “never” or “always” during an argument, there could be a corollary: Never say “no one knows” in a bureaucracy.

A USDA employee quickly provided an answer for Reuters: 99,439 fulltime, part-time and temporary federal employees as of Monday based on figures from the payroll agency.

There were some qualifiers in Vilsack’s statement. He said he asked the Obama transition team and “I was told no one knows for sure how many people work at (USDA). They could tell me how many checks are issued, but not how many people actually work here.”

A former USDA official snorted at the idea of an uncountable workforce. “That may be almost an urban myth,” he said. “It’s not a simple answer” but is within reach.

There are some complexities. For example, USDA employment rises to include Forest Service “smoke jumpers” and wildfire crews during the summer and shrinks during the winter.

Then there’s the roughly 9,400 people in the county offices who are part of the Farm Service Agency. They perform federal tasks but are hired by locally elected committees. 

A few years ago, USDA budget workers on a lark composed a multiple-choice question on USDA employment. All four answers correct although differing on points like counting fulltime workers only or including county office workers.

— Charles Abbott

Photo credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

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