Union Boss: Hundreds of EPA Employees' Jobs at Risk

AFGE exec: Buyout notices have gone out to more than 1,000 agency workers

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees protesting in 2013 / Getty Images
July 18, 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency has sent out more than 1,000 buy-out notices to its employees as Congress debates a $528 million budget cut, according to a union executive.

American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 Michael Mikulka said that 182 EPA employees in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota have received notices seeking early retirement or buy-out options that would eliminate their positions within the agency.

"The Chicago-based union executive told a press conference that the agency capped buy-outs at 79 in his region and similar letters have gone out nationwide, which could prevent additional layoffs from occurring.

"EPA wants over 1,200 of us to leave, purportedly to save money going forward and claiming that they no longer need the positions occupied by staff that in some cases worked at EPA for over 30 years," he said.

Mikulka expects that many of his members will take the buy-out deal and that the EPA will be less active as a result.

"Federal employees have been demonized by certain interest groups as well as Congress over time," he said in a joint teleconference with the environmentalist group Sierra Club. "We're going to have to do less with less."

The EPA defended the push for early retirement and buy-outs, saying that the move was necessary to preserve funding for vital agency programs, while saving taxpayer dollars. An agency spokesman said the EPA followed the model set forth by the Obama administration between December 2013 and April 2014.

"Streamlining and reorganizing is good government and important to maximizing taxpayer dollars. This includes looking at developing opportunities for individuals to retire early," the spokesman said in an email. "It’s a process that mirrors what the Obama Administration EPA did about four years ago, to ensure that payroll expenses do not overtake funds used for vital programs to protect the environment."

The agency declined to say how many people would be targeted by the notices or how many buy-outs and early retirements it hoped to achieve.

The agency was able to shed 456 employees at a cost of $16 million through early retirement and buy-out packages of $25,000 under the Obama program. In March, the EPA Inspector General's office reported that the program helped the agency to meet some of its restructuring goals and was an effective cost-cutting device by reducing surplus positions, but found that it had not prevented the EPA from re-filling some positions.

"[Early retirement] helped the program offices and regions in our sample achieve goals related to reducing size, grades and surplus positions. Other goals—such as de-layering and adding staff with new skill sets—had not been fully achieved at the time we concluded our review," the inspector general found

President Trump's proposed budget called for a $2.1 billion cut to the EPA's 2017 budget of $8 billion. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies approved a $528 million cut, which would give the agency $7.53 billion. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ken Calvert (R., Calif.) said that the agency was overdue for belt tightening as Republicans attempt to roll back the regulatory state and reduce the national debt.

Calvert said that larger budgets do not guarantee effective environmental protection, and that the subcommittee restored funding to areas that would have been cut under Trump's proposal if they managed to balance effective protection with economic growth.

"My focus has been to make sure we fund EPA programs that actually clean our water and air, but don’t stall job growth and harm our economy," he said. "It doesn't take a bigger bureaucracy to have a cleaner environment."

Mikulka called the buy-out notices "rare," saying that the agency had not taken such a measure since 2014. The agency cut the workforce from 15,913 workers in the 2013 fiscal year to 14,725 in 2015, even as its budget increased from $7.9 billion to $8.1 billion. Mikulka said that the use of buyouts and furloughs helped the agency to avoid layoffs at that time, but added that the agency was "more than likely to go into layoff mode" if the Appropriations Committee approves the $7.5 billion budget.

Republicans and several labor groups, especially in the building trades and mining, have clashed with environmentalists and the agency for hurting private sector job growth. AFGE, the largest labor group for federal workers, said that it would team up with the environmentalist movement to push back against the cuts. AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said that the economy and job opportunities for his members would be hindered moving forward.

"Once they leave the EPA, we're never going to get those people back," he said. "They're crippling the agency [to the point] where the agency can't fulfill its mission."

Sierra Club Minnesota Chapter Director Margaret Levin joined the union officials on the call and said it would stand by the union, calling the budget a "dirty spending proposal."

"We cannot overstate how important it is … to have a fully-funded EPA," she said.

The House Appropriations Committee will debate the subcommittee's budget recommendation on Wednesday at 3 p.m.