WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to set aside $12 million for buyouts and early retirements in coming months, as part of an effort to begin “reshaping” the agency’s workforce under the Trump administration.
In a memo, the EPA’s acting chief financial officer, David Bloom, said the move is how the agency plans to spend part of roughly $24 million in “carryover funds” — essentially, money that was not spent in the previous fiscal year and is rolled over to the current one.
Beyond the looming buyouts, the memo details $800,000 allocated for travel expenses for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s security detail, $1.4 million for cloud-computing services and other data storage, and $2 million for consolidating the agency’s physical footprint.
“Senior leadership made decisions to allocate the carry-over funds set aside earlier this year to address agency’s priorities for incentive payments for workforce reshaping, support for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance (OGC), travel for the Administrator’s protective detail, rent, continued space reduction efforts, eDiscovery, agency cloud services and the OGC’s workforce support,” Bloom wrote Wednesday.
The EPA did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment. However, the Trump administration’s push to shrink the agency’s staffing comes as no surprise. An initial White House budget for fiscal 2018 slashed its budget by 31 percent and its 15,000-employee workforce by more than 3,000 people. The administration is likely to revise those numbers when it unveils an updated budget proposal in coming days, though the EPA is expected to still face deep cuts. Congress would have to approve any such plan.
Last month, the EPA made clear it intended to begin offering buyouts as part of its response to an executive order by President Donald Trump aimed at streamlining agencies throughout the federal government. Acting deputy administrator Mike Flynn wrote in a letter to regional administrators and other EPA officials that the White House had asked agencies to start taking “immediate actions” aimed at reducing their workforce.
“In light of this guidance, we will begin the steps necessary to initiate an early out/buy out . . . program,” he wrote, adding that the goal is to complete the first buyouts by the end of September.
Flynn 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,” he said. “Very limited exceptions to this external hiring freeze may be permitted on a case-by-case basis.”
Neither that letter nor this week’s memo contained details about how much the EPA plans to shrink its workforce.
There are two main ways the agency could entice employees to leave. A buyout – also known as a “voluntary separation incentive payment,” or VSIP – is a cash payment to encourage a federal worker to leave voluntarily. In most cases, the maximum payout is $25,000, which is taxable. Employees who accept a buyout must leave by a specific date and can’t return to federal employment within five years unless they repay the entire, pretax buyout amount.
Voluntary Early Retirement Authority, in federal lingo, allows federal employees to retire before they typically would qualify for full benefits. Early retirement generally allows employees under either of the federal government’s main retirement systems – the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System – to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service or at any age with 25 years of service.
In 2014, during the Obama administration, EPA paid more than $11 million in incentives to compel 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, according to EPA union officials.