Amid rising workloads and understaffing, employees at the Environmental Protection Agency urged senior leaders and Congress to make some significant changes for the agency’s workforce.
In light of growing workforce challenges, the American Federation of Government Employees, the federal union representing more than 7,700 EPA employees under AFGE Council 238, held a rally outside the agency’s D.C. headquarters.
“We are facing a staffing crisis,” AFGE Council 238 President Marie Owens Powell told Federal News Network at the Feb. 15 rally. “We need to not only hire new staff, but the bigger problem from our point of view is retaining the staff that we have. We have 3,000 employees that have more than 30 years of experience … We simply cannot afford to have that wealth of knowledge walk out the door.”
During fiscal 2022, EPA had 14,581 employees, a slight improvement from the past couple of years, but still several thousand workers below staffing in the 1990s. At its peak, EPA had 18,110 employees in 1999.
Of the agency’s current staff, about 3,000 employees — or one-fifth of the total EPA workforce — are eligible for retirement.
The understaffing at the agency, AFGE said, is exacerbated by a rapidly increasing workload from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), as well as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, commonly called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Specifically, the IRA provides $27 billion in climate funding, and on Feb. 10, EPA announced an additional $1 billion investment going toward clean-up projects across the country under the BIL.
“More responsibilities are coming onto our plate to implement the great programs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the IRA, and our staff keeps getting smaller and smaller,” Matt Castelli, a legislative advocate for AFGE Local 3607, representing EPA employees in Denver, told Federal News Network at the rally.
The increased work causes exhaustion, burnout and low morale for many EPA employees.
“I can speak from experience in my office, there are people doing the jobs of one-and-a-half to two employees on a regular basis with no relief in sight,” Teddy Bruce, an EPA employee who attended the union rally, told Federal News Network.
Bruce added that management in his office is considering ways to increase morale, engagement and activity between employees, but so far, he has not seen those efforts come to fruition.
“There is a lot of dismay and exponentially more talk of transitioning to different agencies and to the [private] sector, more so than I’ve ever heard before, even during the Trump administration,” he said.
Over the course of a week, EPA employees and AFGE leaders advocated in the nation’s capital to push agency management to add more staff and fix some longstanding pay issues. According to EPA spokesperson Shayla Powell, agency leaders met with AFGE during that time to listen to their concerns over hiring and pay.
“EPA engages with its union partners and is fostering those partnerships,” Powell said in an email to Federal News Network. “EPA is dedicated to retaining and building a workforce that is driven by the agency’s mission.”
The agency is currently onboarding nearly 1,800 employees to support the new legislative work of the BIL and the IRA, Powell added. The employees will come on board in addition to the agency’s current appropriated ceiling of 15,079 staff members for fiscal 2023.
In response to another concern from AFGE that the workforce lacks diversity, Powell added that the agency is broadening relationships with educational institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and veteran organizations when hiring new staff.
“We are maximizing non-competitive hiring authorities, the Pathways programs, direct hire authorities and other recruitment efforts,” Powell added. “We also use ‘bulk’ hiring at the entry level, which allows us to hire a number of staff off a single advertisement.”
AFGE highlights retention challenges
A larger problem for the EPA workforce beyond recruitment is staff retention, according to Owens Powell, the AFGE Council 238 president.
“Right now, EPA is focused on hiring but is ignoring retention,” AFGE added in a 2023 issue paper. “There is no net gain in staff as attrition accelerates.”
AFGE has said that staffing remains low, as employees leave the agency “at a very high rate.” The slight staff growth over the past few years, about a 3% gain, is not enough to cover the increased workload, especially given the loss of expertise.
“Arguably, we need 20,000 employees to do the job,” Owens Powell said.
But Powell, an EPA spokesperson, pointed to data from the Partnership for Public Service showing that EPA’s attrition levels were among the lowest governmentwide and have remained relatively consistent. EPA’s attrition rate was 4.8% in fiscal 2020 and 5% in fiscal 2021.
“EPA continues to implement a number of efforts, including succession planning, developing knowledge transfer initiatives and utilizing retention incentives to specifically address potential loss of staff and expertise,” Powell said. “The agency is also strengthening employee engagement and developing clear paths to career development. EPA also uses phased retirement, allowing employees to work part-time while mentoring and training others.”
Limited EPA career ladders
A pay cap issue and limited career ladders at the agency are causing further retention issues, especially for those in senior-level positions, AFGE said.
Union officials said new employees’ career ladders and salaries are capped lower than those of their peers doing the same work. When employees in more senior positions retire, AFGE said the agency will either eliminate positions or reclassify them to a lower grade level. For example, EPA inspectors are ranked as a GS-13 or GS-14 at the maximum, but new inspectors are being capped at GS-12 or GS-13.
“The agency has downgraded our positions, and that’s making it hard for us to retain employees doing the important work of protecting our air and water,” AFGE Local 3607 President Britta Copt told Federal News Network at the rally. “They’re not as senior, and those positions then are not able to develop the expertise and knowledge that is required to do the great work that we do.”
AFGE said the career ladder issue compounds with the already-existing pay gap between the public and private sector.
“EPA workers should earn the pay that captures the complexity and difficulty of the work required by their positions,” AFGE Council 238 employees wrote in a Dec. 8 letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “More challenging work hasn’t gone away — instead, employees are performing more difficult work without being paid at a rate that competes with the private sector.”
“We know that our salaries will never meet those of private industry, but we’ve got to close that gap a little bit,” Owens Powell added.
EPA spokesperson Powell said that despite the pay gap, there are other ways federal government jobs offer unique opportunities to both current staff and prospective employees.
“While the federal government often cannot equal private sector salaries, it can provide employees with more stability and other benefits. Specifically, the agency offers the opportunity to protect human health and the environment and positively affect an untold number of people’s lives,” Powell said in an email.
But the union is pushing for more, especially to deal with the internal pay issues. AFGE recommended that EPA improve the career ladders and special pay rates for certain positions, to try to improve pay, and therefore staff retention.
“We need to be able to attract and retain the best of the best to do what we do. We address safe drinking water, clean air and Superfund sites. To do that, we need more staff that are paid fairly,” Castelli said.
A push for more remote work
As part of a recent collective bargaining agreement, AFGE negotiated a remote work provision, but Owens Powell said agency management has been denying remote work requests without solid reasoning.
“I think right now what we’re seeing is buyer’s remorse on the agency’s part,” she said. “I don’t think they expected or prepared for the amount of people that would be interested in remote work, so they’re pushing back … Let’s push them to the limits, as far as we can, to get these people higher pay, more remote work and a reason to stay.”
AFGE is currently negotiating a new contract with the agency, but union officials said they are struggling to reach an agreement on a couple of articles, particularly related to promotions and staffing. Holding the rally and calling on Congress to take action was part of the union’s strategy to promote the ongoing workforce issues.
“This is not a protest. We are here to help the agency and move the agency forward. If the agency fails, we fail,” Owens Powell said. “We truly want to partner with them. We truly want to move this forward. The way to do it is to help our employees.”