Philly EPA region could take major hit in buyout plan

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 3, which includes a large Philadelphia office, could lose the most employees of the agency’s 10 regional operations through recently announced buyout offers, according to figures obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Region 3 covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. But the region’s biggest office by far is in Philadelphia.

The EPA is targeting a maximum of 159 workers for buyouts and early retirements in Region 3, or nearly one-fifth of its approximately 795 employees, according to the numbers supplied by union officials representing EPA employees. Of that number, 136 would come from the Philadelphia office. Buyouts, which also are being offered to non-union employees, are voluntary, so it’s not clear just how much the effort will reduce staff.

EPA officials say the buyouts are part of the Trump administration’s general plan to shrink government, but there is no hard minimum or maximum number. Mike Flynn, the EPA’s acting deputy administrator, sent an email to employees Wednesday explaining that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget approved the offer for early retirements and buyouts. But he stressed that the decision to accept is voluntary and that the offer closes Tuesday.

“This is a very personal decision and employees are urged to carefully consider the information provided and their personal situation prior to deciding,” Flynn said.

Among the biggest buyout targets are scientists, such as environmental protection specialists, environmental engineers, and general physical scientists. But lawyers, secretaries, and other job classifications are also on the list.

“I found out over the past week,” said Gary Morton, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3631, the union representing Region 3 employees. “It’s worse than expected.”

Morton said the impact of the buyout is difficult to gauge since employees are still mulling their options and the agency is restructuring in many areas. The most senior employees, those with 30 years of service, can get up to $25,000 as part of the buyout.

“This tells me the agency is looking to retire its higher-graded, most knowledgeable employees and replace them with new employees,” Morton said.

Overall, the EPA is looking to buy out more than 1,200 of its 15,000 employees. At its Washington headquarters, the Office of Research and Development — the agency’s main scientific research arm — could see the biggest buyout, with offers going to 183 people.

The buyouts, part of the 2017 fiscal year, are separate from any proposed budget cuts to the agency for the 2018 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. This week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would cut the EPA’s budget to $7.5 billion for 2018 — about $500 million less than President Trump’s original proposal calling for a $2.6 billion cut. The bill includes money to pay for buyouts.

Morton said the buyouts could both eliminate the most experienced talent and force state governments — also facing budget cuts — to take on more environmental protection duties.

Neil Shader, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said it’s too early to say how buyouts would impact the state.

John O’Grady, the AFGE’s national president, said his bottom line is, “Will the U.S. EPA still be able to protect the environment?”