This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. EST.
U.S. EPA is preparing buyouts for hundreds of employees in its regional offices, as part of an effort to pare its workforce in the face of budget constraints.
The buyouts and "early-outs" are scheduled to occur over the next few months, with each office submitting plans to the Office of Personnel Management for approval. Under the former, employees would get a lump sum of $25,000 to leave; the latter allows certain employees to retire early and immediately receive annuity payments.
Overall, EPA officials hope to restructure the workforce, clearing out some higher-paid positions to make way for more entry-level employees who they say better fit the agency's needs. But not all employees would be replaced, leading to a smaller workforce.
Inside EPA first reported the buyouts in a story last night.
An EPA spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a staffwide email obtained by Greenwire, Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe called buyouts a better alternative to months of hiring restrictions that have limited offices to hiring only one person for every two or three who left.
"This approach has been difficult to manage because of the unpredictable nature of attrition, and it has challenged our ability to acquire new talent, build diversity in our staff, develop new skills and provide all of the necessary tools to do the job of protecting human health and the environment," Perciasepe wrote in the December email. "We can and must make long-term changes to support you and the vital work you do for the American people."
Union officials disagree, arguing that getting rid of employees is the wrong place to cut. Instead, EPA should be looking at "pass-through money," or the large part of its budget that goes to grants, contracts and other outside costs, said John O'Grady, who is president of an EPA chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees.
In his view, institutional knowledge -- and environmental enforcement -- should be EPA's priority.
"This is scary," O'Grady said. "That means we're going to have fewer people to go out, to do inspections."
Regional offices and other divisions are collectively offering 19 buyout and early-out packages, he said. If OPM approves all packages by the end of this week, employees will get offers during the first two weeks of February. Those who accept the offers would have to leave by April 4, according to O'Grady.
The plan follows a year that saw EPA under increasing budget pressure, with sequestration forcing furloughs and on-again, off-again hiring freezes. Budget uncertainty has also prompted the agency to adopt a new approach to enforcement, with a draft five-year plan calling for fewer in-person inspections and better use of technology through "Next Generation Compliance" (Greenwire, Dec. 9, 2013).
Indeed, the buyout package for Region 5 cites Next Generation Compliance as one of the focuses of its restructuring plan. By reducing the number of employees and "rebalancing" grade levels, the office hopes to recruit people with technical and legal skills needed to best use new technology to monitor industry and work with partner communities.
"Program priorities have evolved over time based, in part, on executive leadership direction, and specific knowledge of a particular sector, program or pollutant that supported the higher grade at one point may no longer exist, or exist in an amount insufficient to support a stand-alone, high graded position," officials wrote in the plan.
Officials plan to consolidate higher-graded duties and reduce the number of higher-paid nonsupervisory positions. The effort will target 701 positions, with offers made to as many as 146 employees.
Such positions include environmental protection specialists and environmental engineers at the GS-13 level or higher. Their "most complex work" will be reassigned to existing high-level employees, while the less complex work will go to lower positions that have a promotion ceiling to GS-12. Instead of a sole expert in a specific field, there will be several employees working on issues at different levels -- including lower-paid employees who focus on "multimedia approaches."
Without a buyout, the office has an attrition rate of only 4 percent. But if enough employees accept offers to leave, Region 5 officials may be able to reduce the number of full-time employees by almost 100 -- from 1,160 to 1,072 -- by fiscal 2015, according to the buyout package.