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Energy and Environment

EPA plans to offer buyouts as part of Trump push to shrink workforce

By Brady Dennis

April 19, 2017 at 4:00 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency said this week that it would begin the process of shrinking its 15,000-employee workforce through buyouts, in the wake of President Trump's executive order last month aimed at streamlining agencies throughout the federal government.

In a letter to regional administrators and other agency officials, EPA acting deputy administrator Mike Flynn said the White House had asked federal agencies to begin taking "immediate actions" aimed at reducing their workforce.

Related: [Trump budget expected to seek historic contraction of federal workforce]

"In light of this guidance, we will begin the steps necessary to initiate an early out/buy out … program," Flynn said, adding that the goal is to complete the program by the end of the fiscal year.

He also noted that while a government-wide hiring freeze had been lifted, hiring at the EPA would remain at a standstill. "Given our resource situation, we will continue a freeze on external hiring," Flynn said. "Very limited exceptions to this external hiring freeze may be permitted on a case-by-case basis."

The memo, dated Monday, contains little additional detail about the EPA's plans to shrink its number of employees, and it is probably the first of many similar plans that will be submitted by various agencies.

But the EPA, in particular, has been a central target of the Trump administration. The president has promised in the past to reduce the agency to "tidbits." His proposed budget would slash the agency's funding by 31 percent, cut about 3,200 workers, obliterate funding for climate change research and Superfund cleanups, and scrap more than 50 programs. Among them: efforts aimed at improving energy efficiency, funding infrastructure projects in Native American communities and cleaning up the Great Lakes.

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President Trump just released his budget plan for the next fiscal year, which proposes some big changes in government spending. Here's a look at what agencies are helped and hurt by the proposal. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

What exactly would the workforce reduction efforts detailed in this week's memo look like? The Washington Post's Eric Yoder explains:

A buyout — also called a voluntary separation incentive payment or VSIP — is a cash payment to entice a federal employee to leave voluntarily. The maximum in most cases is $25,000 per person, although the payment is taxable, reducing its take-home value by several thousand dollars at least.

Employees accepting a buyout must leave by a specific date and can't return to federal employment within five years unless they repaid the entire, pretax buyout amount. … Commonly, buyouts are paired with early retirement offers.

Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA), in federal lingo, allows federal employees to retire before they hit the standard combinations of age and years of service. There are two main federal retirement systems, one called the Civil Service Retirement System and the other the Federal Employees Retirement System. The former generally applies to those first hired before 1984, now less than a tenth of the workforce — but that also means they are older and closer to retirement on average …

… Early retirement offers allow employees under either system to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service or any age with 25 years, potentially subject to a reduction in benefits.

Actually laying off federal workers, a process known as Reduction in Force, or RIF, requires a lengthy process that experts say can be disruptive, tedious and expensive. RIFs have not been widely used for decades, and agencies generally try to avoid them, opting first for other approaches, such as reducing travel and other expenses, as well as reducing the number of employees through attrition.

"Streamlining and reorganizing is good government and important to maximizing taxpayer dollars," EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement Wednesday. "This includes looking at developing opportunities for individuals to retire early.  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."

John O'Grady, a career EPA employee who heads a national council of EPA unions, said that in 2014, the agency paid incentives of about $11.3 million to get 436 employees to voluntarily leave their jobs. It also paid accumulated annual leave payments of $4.9 million, for a total of $16.2 million.

O'Grady said for the Trump administration to try to get rid of thousands of employees using the same approach would prove "exorbitantly expensive." In addition, he said it would amount to "the utter destruction of the U.S. EPA."

"If the administration were interested in realigning the U.S. EPA, it would first conduct a thorough workforce and workload analysis," O'Grady said in a statement Wednesday. "However, they will not do this because it would tell them that the agency is woefully underfunded and understaffed today. Any further cuts will absolutely cripple the agency."

More from Energy and Environment:

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Top Trump advisers at odds over Paris climate deal

Scientists have discovered vast systems of flowing water in Antarctica. And that worries them.

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Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues.

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