Bill to shield EPA during appropriations a ‘good step,’ but more congressional buy-in needed

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he will follow congressional authority when it comes to staffing changes and office closures, which is good news for federal workforce advocates as they prepare a bill to shield the agency from certain forms of reorganization.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is introducing legislation called the Recognizing the Environmental Gains in Overcoming Negligence Act. The bill prohibits any EPA office from being “closed, consolidated, or eliminated using funds made available in any appropriations Act for any fiscal year.”

“The EPA’s regional offices — and their thousands of hardworking public servants — are critical when it comes to improving public health and safeguarding the environment,” Duckworth said in a statement. “Shuttering them and slashing EPA resources would jeopardize the livelihood and safety of communities in Illinois and across the country. I’m introducing my new REGION Act to protect Illinois jobs and ensure these offices can remain open to provide the protections we rely on — whether or not the president thinks protecting our children from lead poisoning and toxic air is important.”

John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which specifically represents EPA employees, called the legislation “a good step,” but said what Congress needs to do is “recognize that this is not a partisan issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, it’s an American issue.”

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O’Grady, who is based in Chicago, attended Pruitt’s Capitol Hill appearance earlier this week, where the agency chief defended the White House’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for EPA in fiscal 2018 before a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing — and where he pledged to uphold congressional directives.

“Will you commit to heeding this committee’s direction on staffing changes, including potential office closures or moves and major staff reductions, instead of prejudging congressional actions,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

“There are no pink slips being issued at the agency,” Pruitt said. “Through attrition, voluntary buyouts the hiring freeze that’s in place, those are the steps only that we’re taking presently with respect to the personnel numbers that you make reference to.”

“So your answer to this question would be yes,” Udall asked.

“We respect the role of Congress in that regard; yes,” Pruitt answered.

Pruitt’s words are hollow, though, at least according to O’Grady. O’Grady was in town to take part in a training session, meet with lawmakers, and get the word out about federal employees, that they’re just your average people looking to do their jobs.

“Obviously we’re all concerned about this, and it does weigh heavily on people, because we’re moms and dads, we’re grandmas and grandpas, and we’re concerned about our retirement,” O’Grady said. “One of the big things out there is they’re talking about not just the agency’s budget, but it’s like they’re purposefully going after the federal employees.”

In fact, there are nearly the same number of federal employees today as there were under President John F Kennedy. What’s changed, O’Grady said, is that government is bigger, and the contract workforce has grown with it.

“Every time Congress strangles agencies and departments and says you can’t hire anymore, there’s going to be a hiring freeze, they just go out because the mission has to continue and they get a contractor,” O’Grady said.

Which is partially why the budget cuts and personnel reductions are hitting employees so hard, O’Grady said.

“Here we’ve been fighting for our budget, we’ve gone from 18,100 people in 1999, down to under 15,000 today. Now they’re talking about as many as 3,800 to depart the agency, and our budget has been flat for almost …. 10 years without the spike. Now they’re talking about taking just shy of $3 billion out of the budget,” O’Grady said. “I think why people are really bummed is because people who go to EPA, like many of the federal workers, they work at their agency because they believe in the mission, and our mission is to protect human health and the environment. We go into government, we know we’re not going to get paid a lot, it’s a living, and we’re guaranteed some sort of a pension and now we see Congress wanting to take that away from us.”

‘You need people’

EPA is already feeling the belt tighten. Earlier this month the agency announced it wanted to cut 8 percent of its workforce by early September through early retirement and buyouts.

Gary Morton, AFGE’s lead negotiator for VERA/VSIP, told Federal News Radio that past VERA/VSIPs targeted low and high level GS levels together, but this time around for at least his Region 3, Morton said GS levels 12, 13, and 14 employees will be eligible for buyouts and early retirement.

“IT coordinators, IT people, IT security people, also environmental scientists or scientists below the grade of 12 will not be eligible to take the VERA/VSIP,” Morton said. “I’ve heard the eligibility numbers [elsewhere] were not as high as my region. My region is over ceiling, meaning we have more employees than we have payroll. So as a result, we have 200-something people eligible. That’s a lot of people.”

O’Grady said GS 14 positions are positions like regional counsel and attorneys.

The problem with the buyouts, O’Grady said, is that people in their 50s might not be incentivized to take the offer, and also by law agencies are not really allowed to backfill those positions, which means EPA would be getting rid of a lot of institutional knowledge.

Institutional knowledge aside, lawmakers have voiced their concern for a variety of environmental issues in their respective jurisdictions, and Pruitt’s Senate hearing was no different.

Fish grinding, Montanan Superfund sites, and the Chesapeake Bay were just some of the areas highlighted by senators, along with Tuesday’s announcement from the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers about how a 2015 regulation under the Clean Water Act will be rolled back.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) pointed out that concerns around remote areas and specific issues can be helped through leadership at the agency’s regional offices.

She asked what the status was on filling some of these regional administrator positions, since the last time she’d checked, there was a hiring bottleneck.

“I know full well that you need people, you need people not only in the confirmed spots, but you need them throughout,” Murkowski said. “The sooner we get people in place and brought up to speed on many of these areas, where again, I look at them as parochial, but for our fishermen, for our miners, for the people that live in these remote areas and are raising their families, these are pretty key.”

Pruitt said the agency was making progress on putting regional administrators in place, and hoped “to see a good outcome sometime soon.”

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