Demoralized EPA employees brace for “wholesale war on the environment”
The Trump administration rolled into Washington with a promise from senior adviser Steve Bannon to “deconstruct the administrative state.” But the one agency particularly in Team Trump’s crosshairs was the Environmental Protection Agency, whose budget was cut by nearly a third in Trump’s first budget proposal and whose new administrator opposes the agency’s mission.
Cutting an agency this deeply will require thousands of layoffs, and on this front, EPA chief Scott Pruitt has demographics on his side: The EPA’s workforce skews older than the norm for the federal government, meaning more employees are eligible to simply retire. With morale dipping as cuts make it seemingly impossible for the agency to fulfill its core mission, inside sources speaking to VICE News expect a stampede for the exits in the coming months as Pruitt offers $12 million in incentives for employees to take early retirement and buyouts.
Longtime employees are accustomed to the pendulum-swings between big-government Democrat and small-government Republican administrations, but this one feels different. “Having an administrator who doesn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change and places industry interests above protecting human health is deeply troubling,” said one current EPA employee, on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a wholesale war on the environment. That’s never happened before,” said Kyla Bennett, who worked at the EPA for almost a decade and now works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental government watchdog organization.
The mood, said John O’Grady, president of AFGE Council 238, the union representing EPA employees, “is not good at all.”
It’s a wholesale war on the environment. That’s never happened before.
To hit the aggressive targets, the EPA will have to cut at least 3,000 positions of the 15,000 total, according to an estimate from E&E News. The EPA is one of the older agencies in the federal government with 57 percent of its employees over the age of 50, compared to 52 percent for the rest of the federal government according to the Office of Personnel Management. But since EPA employees tend to stick around a long time, a mass departure would mean a big brain drain. Over 40 percent of the agency has been at the EPA for more than 20 years.
“When those people go away, you’re losing more than just a [full-time employee]; you’re losing decades of institutional knowledge,” Bennett said.
The EPA has always been susceptible to politicking and was still reeling from a previous round of cuts when Pruitt arrived in February. In 2014, the Obama administration allocated $11.3 million toward both voluntary buyouts and early retirement, which led to 456 EPA employees leaving the agency, according to an internal EPA report obtained by VICE News. With 15,000 current employees, the agency is at its lowest staffing level since 1989, according to New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s summary of the proposed budget cuts.
While it’s hard to know how many will ultimately leave the agency, employees are already raising their hands. At region nine, the EPA’s Southwestern branch, at least 110 people have expressed interest in the buyout or early retirement programs, an employee told VICE News. According to the staffer, there are currently about 700 people employed in that region.
In a survey taken in May 2016, 23 percent said they planned to retire before 2021. Given the general dismay over the agency’s diminished mission mission and at being treated as if the agency is the enemy, sources believe the number would be much higher if that question were asked today.
“Everybody looks at us like we’re some kind of pariah. We’re protecting the country’s health,” O’Grady said. “What part of increasing pollution will benefit the economy?”
What part of increasing pollution will benefit the economy?
Pruitt announced the buyout program in a May 17 memo that specified the funds will come from $24 million left over from last year — money unspent. It also said that Trump’s hiring freeze, which was lifted for the rest of the federal government in April, would continue at the EPA.
“If the buyouts go through, people will be injured and die. It will be very hard to make the connection between, ‘When Trump did this, 170 died from that,’” Bennett said. “People will be harmed by the loss of the people at EPA.”
The May 17 memo names two programs the agency plans to use to encourage employees to leave. The first is through a cash payment program that maxes out at $25,000 and is taxable. The second is an early retirement program that provides retirement benefits earlier than employees would generally qualify for them.
But just because people agree to buyouts or to retire doesn’t mean cuts will be easy.
“There’s a barrier to eliminating FTE [full-time equivalent hours],” said Bennett. “But there’s no barrier to eliminating the job description. In order to fire [thousands of] people nationwide across the EPA — that would require a ‘reduction in force,’ which could involve a legal battle with the union.”
“With the [proposed] budget,” she added, “they may have to.”
And while it’s unclear who will qualify for the buyouts, a disproportionate number of EPA employees are likely eligible for regular retirement benefits. An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the demographics of the agency, the number of years the average EPA employee has worked at the agency, or the reductions in staff, generally.
The big question is where the EPA’s talent will go if they leave, and what effect their absence from the workforce would have, writ large, on the environment. In 2016, Donna J. Vizian, then-assistant administrator, wrote that the Obama-era buyout program “challenged the EPA’s ability to acquire new talent, build diversity in its staff, develop new skills, and provide all of the necessary tools to achieve the agency’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.”
The State of California has reportedly been wooing EPA talent, standing outside of the EPA and handing out flyers.
But even in the face of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts, O’Grady remains hopeful, as Congress ultimately has to approve the cuts and environmental advocacy groups will push back against Trump and Pruitt. “We’re certainly counting on the American people saying, ‘Wait a minute — we want clean air, we want clean water, we want clean land,’” O’Grady said.
One additional expense added to the EPA this year is an $800,000, 10-person team for Pruitt’s heightened security detail. Prior administrators have had “door-to-door” security — to and from work, while they were traveling, and for events. The EPA currently doesn’t have the staff to provide that kind of security, so they will have to hire for those positions, E&E News reports.