Hundreds set to leave EPA via buyout, retirement

Source: Niina Heikkinen, Kevin Bogardus and Hannah Northey, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hundreds of U.S. EPA employees are heading for the exits after the agency offered a round of buyout and early retirement packages.

An EPA official told E&E News that 362 employees have taken voluntary buyouts. Agency workers were expected to accept buyout offers by Sept. 2, but the official noted 45 other employees are still considering offers.

In addition, 12 employees retired on Aug. 31 and another 33 employees are retiring at the end of this month.

The EPA official said if all employees accept buyout offers and unrelated retirements move forward, the agency’s employment level would be 14,428, meaning 452 workers would have left the agency. That’s comparable to EPA’s employment level at the end of the Reagan administration, when it had roughly 14,440 employees in fiscal 1988.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency is proud that it has been paring down government and protecting taxpayer funds with the buyout round this year.

“We’re giving long-serving, hard-working employees the opportunity to retire early,” Pruitt said in a statement. “We’re proud to report that we’re reducing the size of government, protecting taxpayer dollars and staying true to our core mission of protecting the environment and American jobs.”

The number of accepted buyout offers falls far short of the 1,227 total voluntary buyouts the agency was authorized to offer employees for fiscal 2017 (Climatewire, July 17). The Trump administration has also sought deeper cuts to EPA, proposing in its fiscal 2018 budget blueprint a roughly 30 percent budget cut that would slash about 3,800 jobs from a total staff of roughly 15,000 (Greenwire, May 23).

To eliminate thousands of EPA jobs would likely take a “reduction in force,” a complex process that would take years to complete and is heavily regulated. Joe Edgell, senior vice president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280, told E&E News that voluntary separations like buyouts are a preferable alternative.

“Our goal is to prevent involuntary separations, and more people leaving voluntarily make involuntary separations less likely,” said Edgell, whose union represents EPA professional workers in its Washington headquarters.

There were early indications EPA might fall short of its buyout target.

Union officials noted after the initial announcement that staff had limited time to determine whether leaving the agency made financial sense. Employees found out whether their positions were eligible for a buyout less than two weeks before the applications were due.

This buyout round’s number of accepted offers is similar to the last time EPA offered buyouts. During the agency’s 2014 round, 456 employees took EPA’s early-out offer, with the agency paying roughly $16.2 million in buyout incentives and annual leave payments, according to an inspector general report.

EPA has put aside a smaller figure of $12 million for the remainder of fiscal 2017 to give in incentive payments for employees to leave the agency (Greenwire, May 18).

Considering EPA did not meet its goal of roughly 1,200 buyouts, it appears likely the agency will try again next year. Edgell said his union hopes EPA will help employees leave voluntarily rather than instituting a reduction in force.

“Our hope is that they do do another series of voluntary separations rather than involuntary separations,” Edgell said.

In line with the buyouts, the Trump administration has sought to run a tighter operation at EPA and has espoused “lean” management techniques at the agency. In July, Assistant Deputy Administrator Henry Darwin told EPA employees that the agency would be aiming to increase a sense of urgency in its work, reduce waste and foster continuous improvement within the agency (E&E News PM, July 24).

Critics say that deep cuts to agency staffing will have a detrimental impact on the agency’s ability to protect clean air and clean water. The agency is already working with historically low staffing levels.

Other observers have pushed for deeper staffing cuts at the agency. Myron Ebell, who led EPA’s transition team, said the buyouts are “a good first step” toward achieving Trump’s campaign promise of taking apart the agency.

“President Trump said during the campaign that he would like to abolish the EPA or leave a little bit,” said Ebell, who is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The reductions in personnel that have been achieved so far are a good first step toward achieving the president’s agenda. I think the main obstacle to further downsizing the EPA will be the appropriators in Congress and the special interests they represent.”