EPA Staff Jittery About Trump’s Hiring Freeze

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By Stephen Lee and Brian Dabbs

EPA workers are bracing for the possibility of a “substantial impact” if the Trump administration’s governmentwide hiring freeze persists beyond its allotted period.

The current Jan. 23 freeze only stops federal government hiring for 90 days, and other presidents have enacted similar measures. But some current and former Environmental Protection Agency officials cite numerous public vows from President Donald Trump and his surrogates to drastically downsize the agency and are not convinced the freeze will be lifted when the memo says it will.

“I think there’s a lot of concern about the hiring freeze, but at the end of the day it will depend on how it’s executed,” Charlie Bartsch, former senior adviser for economic development at the EPA, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think it would certainly be fair to say that in terms of actual numbers, the potential certainly exists for substantial impact across the agency after the dust settles.”

Bartsch said the agency could be losing its “scientific spine.” Bartsch, a political appointee, left the agency on Jan. 20.

Under the freeze, non-military vacancies may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances. Both the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations put similar freezes into effect.

Trump Team Responds

Doug Ericksen, who directs communications for the Trump administration’s EPA landing team, told Bloomberg BNA that EPA staffing is actually up by “a couple hundred” over a year ago.

Indeed, EPA data show that the agency’s workforce in fiscal 2016 was up 651 from the previous year. On the other hand, 2015 is the only year in the last 26 that had a lower staffing level than 2016. Broadly, the agency’s staffing is down nearly 1,800 from the average level over that period.

Ericksen also stressed that the hiring freeze is governmentwide, not specifically targeted at the EPA, and that it’s too early to reach conclusions about the freeze.

“President Trump has been on the job two and a half weeks,” Ericksen said. “It’s a new administration, so it makes total sense that they would see what’s going on, governmentwide.”

Exemption Wiggle Room

Trump’s executive order directs the Office of Personnel Management to consider necessary exemptions to the hiring freeze.

Rick Otis, who headed President George W. Bush’s transition, said that office may exempt emergency response personnel. The EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management deploys personnel in response to national disasters, such as oil spills and radiological releases.

“Until you have an administrator and other senior officials in place, I don’t think a short-term hold on hiring would cause major problems,” Otis told Bloomberg BNA. “We’ve had hiring freezes before. They’re something agencies have managed in the past, and I wouldn’t be too worried about it in the short term.”

Bartsch also stressed the need to maintain a well-staffed emergency team. Another large-scale oil spill, such as the 2010 British Petroleum blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, would necessitate an EPA deployment and response. During that crisis, the agency deployed personnel to set up monitoring stations to track particulate matter releases as well as tests of the environmental toxicity of oil dispersant chemicals. Bartsch also pointed to freeze consequences for agency-wide scientists, grant administrators and regional staff.

Retirements Affecting Workload

The EPA has already weathered a raft of staff losses with a higher-than-usual rate of retirements in December, said Joe Edgell, senior vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union Local 280, a union present at EPA headquarters.

Edgell couldn’t specify how many employees retired. Some 38 percent of EPA staff will be retirement-eligible by September 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“It’s a brain drain,” said Edgell, who also works as an attorney in EPA’s Office of General Counsel. “As people leave, you eventually deprive programs of their ability to do their work. Certain programs might have more ability to handle cuts, other programs may not. It’s really going to depend. But it’s fair to say that, at some point, when people leave, the mission of the agency could be compromised.”

Staff Cuts Ongoing

Nate James, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3331, confirmed that the EPA has been struggling to hire people.

AFGE Local 3331 is one of two unions representing workers at EPA headquarters.

“We’ve had a drastic reduction at EPA in the workforce,” James, who is also an IT specialist at the agency, told Bloomberg BNA. “The work has gone nowhere. We still have the same amount of work to do, but fewer people to do it.”

Some of those positions are going unfilled because of budget cuts enacted by congressional Republicans, according to Liz Purchia, who headed EPA’s public affairs office during the Obama administration. In other cases, the agency simply hasn’t been able to find qualified people.

“It’s almost as if each person in the federal government, in certain areas, has the workload of maybe two employees,” James said. As a result, “some things may have slipped down on the priority list.”

Paradoxically, the chronic understaffing may have had the unintended consequence of training EPA employees to make do with less.

“Staff at EPA are kind of used to not operating under full capacity, and they’ve had to find ways to be creative and to do as much as they can with the few resources they have,” Purchia said.

‘We Don’t Have the People’

A senior EPA scientist in the Office of Pesticide Programs, who declined to be identified, said his office is already short-staffed.

“Twenty-five years ago, when I started working, I worked in a division of 200 scientists,” the staffer told Bloomberg BNA. “Now I work in a division of 80 scientists. And we have more work now than we did when I started. So we have very serious staffing problems, and it’s been going on for years.”

If those staff losses aren’t compensated by new hires, people from other offices within the EPA will end up being shifted around, the scientist said. The executive order calls on the agency to reallocate existing personnel and funds “to ensure that essential services are not interrupted.”

“And that won’t help us at all, because they won’t have a clue what to do,” the scientist said. “A new chemist takes three to five years to train.”

Ordinarily, chemical companies pay the EPA up to $400,000 for OPP reviews of their products, the scientist said. In exchange, the companies get a guarantee that the agency will render a decision by a certain time.

“If we do not make a decision by that time, then the money is refunded to the chemical company,” said the scientist. “That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen soon, because we won’t have the people to do the work.”

Morale Seen Bottoming Out

In the meantime, staffers say morale has bottomed out to a low many EPA employees have never seen before.

“People are very nervous,” Edgell told Bloomberg BNA. “If we had more certainty, then people would at least know what they’re confronting. At this point there’s a lot of talk and concern, but we don’t have a lot of facts about where the administration’s going to target its priorities.”

“Morale is very low,” agreed the OPP scientist. “I’ve never seen it this low.”

He pointed to reports that Myron Ebell, the former head of Trump’s EPA transition team, wants to eliminate as many 10,000 of the agency’s 15,000 employees. Ebell, however, has made clear he does not speak on behalf of the Trump administration in making that assessment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington, D.C. at stephenlee@bna.com; Brian Dabbs at bdabbs@bna.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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