Worker Buyouts, Possible Closure Topics at EPA Region 5 Confab

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By Stephen Joyce and Brian Dabbs

The EPA’s Chicago office serving six Midwestern states will complete an information package regarding possible early retirement and buyout offers to its employees at the same time its longer-term viability is in question.

The package will be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Washington headquarters by about May 24. Senior regional EPA officials discussed the package at two April 26 “all hands” meetings in Region 5 headquarters, located in downtown Chicago. The “early out, buy out” proposal is separate from the Trump administration’s reported, and not refuted, discussions of shutting down EPA’s Region 5 office, one of the agency’s 10 regional offices.

Robert Kaplan, Region 5 acting regional administrator, and a senior human resources employee attended the April 26 meetings focused on a proposal to be submitted to EPA headquarters detailing possible early retirement packages and employee buyout offers for Region 5 employees, two EPA employees told Bloomberg BNA.

The meetings were scheduled as continued uncertainty enmeshed the Region 5 office. The Chicago Sun-Times April 15 reported the Trump administration is contemplating closing the Region 5 office in Chicago and shifting its responsibilities to Region 7 in Kansas.

“I don’t see how you can operate EPA in the Midwest without an office in Chicago. I don’t see how you could protect the Great Lakes without an office on the Great Lakes. I think the Great Lakes are too valuable not to have an EPA office on the Great Lakes,” Michael Mikulka, American Federal of Government Employees Local 704 president and an EPA employee, told Bloomberg BNA.

Anne Rowan, EPA Region 5 spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Buyouts Discussed

Region 5’s early retirement and buyout proposal will likely focus on less than 10 percent of its current workforce, which totals about 1,000 workers, Mikulka said.

“What they’ve told us is that it’s going to be a very targeted proposal,” said Mikulka, who said he was speaking for his union and not the federal agency that employs him. AFGE represents about 900 bargaining unit employees working at EPA’s Region 5 office.

“I would really doubt they’d get more than 50 jobs out of this, because frankly, I don’t think there are more than 50 positions we could abolish and not do without, because EPA would be prohibited from hiring someone in that position again,” he said.

Two federal workforce tools, Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP), were discussed at the April 26 meetings. Using the programs, EPA could offer sweeteners to employees as an incentive to retire early. If the Office of Personnel Management approves an EPA restructuring plan, payments of up to $25,000 may be offered to some Region 5 employees under VSIP, Mikulka said.

Also discussed at the April 26 Chicago meetings was what will happen if the federal government shuts down, at least partially, April 29 if Congress does not approve continued funding.

Regional System ‘Broken’

Guidance issued April 12 by the White House Office of Management and Budget requested all federal agencies to submit by June 30 a high-level draft of plans intended to secure near-term workforce reductions, which in the EPA’s case could include any plan to close Region 5.

An April 25 letter sent to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt from a bipartisan group of House and Senate members whose states are in Region 5 expressed “grave concern” over the possibility of the Trump administration shutting down the office, which the lawmakers said “would have a devastating effect on those that call Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio home.” The letter also said the EPA’s Chicago office helps the U.S. meet its international environmental commitments with Canada.

A second letter, sent to Pruitt April 27 from more than half of Michigan’s House delegation, said preserving the Region 5 office is in the nation’s interest because it supports jobs and provides nearly 50 million people with clean drinking water.

Not every member of Congress representing Region 5 constituents opposes eliminating the Region 5 office. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee environment subcommittee chairman, said April 26 in Washington EPA’s regional system “is broken” and called for a cooperative federalism where EPA establishes national standards that are implemented and enforced by state environmental protection agencies.

“I don’t believe in the regional system. I think it’s a mess,” he said. Even some Democrats don’t like the existing regional office regime, Shimkus said.

Region 5 has drawn considerable unwanted attention in recent years. Its former administrator, Dr. Susan Hedman, resigned in February 2016 after facing criticism for failing to release a report showing high levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Mich. A year earlier, three EPA employees told a congressional committee that senior leadership in the office systemically ignored sexual harassment for years and then retaliated against employees who formally reported the issue to EPA headquarters.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Joyce in Chicago at sjoyce@bna.com and Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at pconnolly@bna.com

For More Information

The April 25 letter about Region 5 is at http://src.bna.com/oi0.The April 27 letter about Region 5 is at http://src.bna.com/oiV.

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