EPA:

Agency, union spar over staffing for Great Lakes effort

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is an ambitious project, aimed at cleaning up contaminated waste and invasive species with billions of federal dollars.

Congress approved a budget last year of $475 million for the initiative, and appropriators are on track to hand over another $300 million for fiscal 2011. But it is unclear whether U.S. EPA is adequately staffed to oversee the mammoth task.

For more than two decades, the agency has not completed a comprehensive workforce analysis to determine whether its offices have the right number of employees with the right expertise. That could leave some offices with too many employees, some with too few and others with misplaced experts.

A March report from the Government Accountability Office found that EPA's workforce plan -- created in 2006 -- "is not clearly aligned with the agency's strategic plan or budget formulation." Consequently, budget requests are not based on an analysis of staffing needs; instead, officials make marginal changes from the previous year.

John Stephenson, the GAO director of natural resources and environment, said the agency would ideally complete an agencywide analysis of its workforce. But that is also a "hard thing to do," he said.

"To do a complete work force analysis of your 18,000 people, we recognize that's difficult," Stephenson said. "But EPA needs to better justify why it has the number of people it has in the locations it has them."

Leaders of EPA's union say the agency's handling of the Great Lakes initiative is the latest example of the problem.

To beef up the Great Lakes staff, EPA officials moved employees away from other initiatives, said Charles Orzehoskie, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 10,000 EPA employees.

That not only led to a "disinvestment" in less-prominent programs, he contends, but also to insufficiently trained and inexperienced employees for the Great Lakes project.

"I'm concerned when you have large sums of money and don't have proper oversight, something could go wrong," Orzehoskie said, "and I don't want that to happen."

President Obama first announced his plans for a Great Lakes restoration project during his presidential campaign, and last October, Congress approved a first-year budget of $475 million. EPA was tasked with leading the project, including parsing out much of the funds to other agencies and entities.

The amount was unprecedented for Great Lakes efforts, saddling an EPA staff used to handling $60 million with an almost 700 percent increase. About 60 employees handled Great Lakes efforts in fiscal 2009, according to a document provided by the union. EPA officials added 23 employees in 2010 to handle the extra workload.

EPA declined to answer any questions on the specific staffing of the Great Lakes National Program Office, but spokeswoman Latisha Petteway said the agency is working with a contractor on the broader issue of assessing "shifts in workload." So far, EPA has collected some initial data, she said.

In the agency's response to the GAO report, Assistant Administrator Craig Hooks wrote that the agency "agrees with the principles underlying GAO's recommendations." But the agency also defended some of their staffing practices, including their decision to leave much of their workforce planning to regional offices. Because EPA is decentralized -- with specialized experts on a variety of issues -- local offices are best equipped to decide who they need, the agency wrote.

But union officials claim the agency's method is not working out for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Resources in the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office are now focused on the GLRI, they say, diverting employees from existing commitments. In a recent "issue paper," the union described project managers who were assigned to work outside their expertise and inexperienced employees who put strain on existing staff.

'Competency gaps'

The March GAO report also found that EPA suffered agencywide from "competency gaps" in 12 of its "mission-critical occupations." By the time the report was released, EPA said it had closed six of those gaps, and Petteway said the agency was able to continue to address the gaps through "training and other internal developmental activities."

But in addressing the issue, EPA did not look into whether employees were being placed into positions that made the most sense for completing agencywide goals. Determining how many employees of which expertise is needed in each office -- including the Great Lakes office -- is difficult without an overarching analysis, union officials said.

"We can't tell you the right number of people we need at EPA: more or less," said John O'Grady, treasurer of AFGE Council 238 and president of the local AFGE council for the EPA region headquartered in Chicago. "That's the problem."

But it is not only EPA's problem. In 2009, House and Senate appropriators asked GAO to review the workforce plans of EPA, the Interior Department and the Forest Service. They cited a concern that the plans were "in many cases outdated and that no comprehensive review of appropriate staffing needs for the future had been undertaken."

The result was the March 2010 report titled "Interior, EPA, and the Forest Service Should Strengthen Linkages to Their Strategic Plans and Improve Evaluation." Now the EPA union wants Congress to direct GAO to do a new report specifically on the workforce planning for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

A House Appropriations Committee staffer said appropriators are aware of the issue and plan to address the need for another GAO report on workforce planning in language in the fiscal 2011 spending bill for environmental agencies.

But EPA employees will have to wait awhile before any changes in staffing levels.

When EPA received a 30 percent increase in its fiscal 2010 budget to about $10.3 billion, it increased its staff by 162 full-time employees -- or less than 1 percent of its workforce.

A spending bill appropriating about $10 billion for the agency passed the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee last week. The staff increase requested: 154 employees.