Labor Department’s Benefits Agency Continues to Shrink

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By Jacklyn Wille

The Labor Department’s employee benefits agency continued to shed workers during the final quarter of 2017, reaching the lowest recorded staffing levels since 2001.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration employed 869 people in late 2017, down about 17 percent from its Obama-era peak of 1,043 workers in September 2012. The agency lost employees in each of the past five quarters, according to data published by the Office of Personnel Management and obtained from the EBSA through the Freedom of Information Act.

The EBSA’s workforce hasn’t been this small at any recorded point since September 2001, when it employed 855 people. The drop is particularly significant among mid-level employees designated between grades GS-7 and GS-11 on the federal government’s pay scale. The agency’s roster of mid-level workers declined by 179—more than 70 percent—since September 2012, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis.

A drop in staffing levels, particularly among the EBSA investigators who probe benefit plans for potential wrongdoing, could cause the agency to scale back its investigative activities, George Sepsakos, a principal at Groom Law Group in Washington who previously worked for the agency, told Bloomberg Law. Reduced staff also could cause the average investigation to take longer, he said.

Moreover, a shrinking workforce could cause the agency to be “a little more judicious” in deciding which cases to pursue, Sepsakos said. Cases that require significant resources relative to their impact, such as those involving employee stock ownership plans, may become a lower priority if the agency has fewer employees to handle its workload, he said.

The reduction in workforce corresponds with a slowdown in enforcement litigation. The agency says it filed 50 civil lawsuits during the 2017 fiscal year, compared with 62 in 2016 and 89 in 2015.

However, the agency didn’t report a similar drop in the amount of money recovered through enforcement efforts or the number of investigations opened following informal complaints. The monetary recoveries reported by the EBSA grew from $696 million in 2015 to $1.1 billion in 2017, and the number of investigations opened held relatively steady during this period, ranging between 589 and 662 per year.

The DOL didn’t respond to requests for comment on this article.

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