‘Collective exhale’: Will Trump’s loss stem EPA retirements?

By Kevin Bogardus | 11/10/2020 01:40 PM EST

Among EPA career staff, there have been some smiles, excited phone calls and text messages, and even dancing.

EPA headquarters.

EPA headquarters. Francis Chung/E&E News

Among EPA career staff, there have been some smiles, excited phone calls and text messages, and even dancing.

EPA employees say they are relieved after President Trump’s loss in the 2020 race for the White House. His administration has targeted the agency for deep budget cuts, offered buyouts to the agency’s staff, imposed a tough contract on its largest employee union and rolled back a number of environmental rules that took years of work to craft.

Now those four difficult years are coming to a close after the presidential race was called for President-elect Joe Biden on Saturday.


On the campaign trail, Biden celebrated science and pledged to combat climate change. EPA employees believe the incoming administration will be supportive of and less punitive toward the agency.

"Well, there was dancing in the home offices on Saturday morning!" Nicole Cantello, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, joked to E&E News. "We have never looked back, only forward — and it has been four long years of fighting."

After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, there was anxiety and tears among EPA’s workforce. They were worried about a candidate who promised to pull back regulations and break up the agency (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2016).

Now, with the president’s defeat, there is joy and happiness, but most of all relief, EPA staff told E&E News.

"I think folks would be overjoyed if we weren’t so exhausted from anxiety. So in general the prevailing sentiment is relief," said one EPA employee. "There is a very real and consistent collective exhale amongst staff."

"We lost so much in the last four years: personnel, regulatory, scientific standing. I’m just relieved to get back on the right track," said another EPA staffer. "Overall theme is relief."

Tense times during election

Last week was a tense one at EPA.

Staff at agency headquarters were told of road closures in downtown Washington because of expected protests around Election Day. Employees in EPA’s Atlanta office were warned about demonstrations as well.

Further, EPA workers in the agency’s Philadelphia office were told that the office was closed or was closing early because of potential protests in the area, according to internal emails. That office is only a few city blocks on Arch Street from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where votes have been counted for the election.

In addition, AFGE Local 704 members last week joined in protests for counting every vote in the election.

For several employees, the Trump EPA era has been one of resistance. Cantello remembers in February 2017, her union members walked out of the agency’s Chicago office in protest of Scott Pruitt’s nomination to be EPA administrator. Pruitt was confirmed but later resigned in July 2018 under a crush of ethics scandals.

"We resisted this administration, inside and out" by speaking to the press, talking to Congress and environmental groups, and getting out the vote for candidates who supported their cause, Cantello said about her union.

Now, Cantello said, "In some ways, our work has just begun. We are awed by the sheer volume of tasks that still must be accomplished to set things right, on climate change, environmental justice and enforcement, in particular."

AFGE Council 238, EPA’s largest employee union that represents about 7,500 bargaining unit employees, has tangled with the agency. In July 2019, EPA imposed a contract on the union that reduced telework, curbed the grievance process and forced union officials out of agency office space. The union was able to soften some of those measures in negotiations for a new contract signed this summer, but that experience soured many on EPA leadership.

"Federal employees have suffered under the Trump administration. The election of Joe Biden signals a stop to the attacks on federal employees and the protections provided for them," said Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Local 3631, which represents EPA Region 3 employees.

Celebrations over Trump’s loss are not being held in EPA offices. EPA employees have been teleworking since March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States. Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced plans in May to reopen the agency in a phased approach, but staff are still encouraged to work from home, although they may choose to come to the office.

An EPA employee told E&E News that "people past and present are thrilled" and they’re "elated," but those feelings will not be shared in the office due to the virus. They are also worried about supervisors finding sentiments about the election in their communications.

"People are going to call. They’re not going to put it in an email," said the employee. "We’re not talking in the hall. You’re going to have to pick up the phone."

The president’s election loss could also change EPA employees’ plans. Several may now stay at the agency since they will not have to contend with a second Trump term.

"The pace of retirements has slowed from what I can see. A lot of people were planning to bail" if Trump was reelected, said an EPA employee. "They were reserving judgment until the voters had their say."

Transition to come?

EPA staff are waiting for the transition for the incoming administration to rev up.

The day after the 2016 election, then-Administrator Gina McCarthy told employees in an email her goal was "a seamless transition." The race had been called for Trump already, but his transition team didn’t arrive at EPA until about a month later (Greenwire, Dec. 12, 2016).

Trump has disputed this year’s election results. The head of the General Services Administration has not ascertained an "apparent" winner, which means federal funds cannot be released nor access to agencies given to Biden’s transition team.

EPA employees said they have not received a message similar to McCarthy’s from Wheeler yet. EPA spokesman James Hewitt referred E&E News to GSA.

"There are no updates at this time and GSA’s position remains the same," a GSA spokeswoman told E&E News. "An ascertainment has not yet been made. GSA and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000."

At that time, GSA waited for weeks to name a winner of the 2000 election and only until after Democratic nominee Al Gore conceded the race (Greenwire, Nov. 2).

One EPA employee said there was still some angst among staff about what Trump political appointees at the agency may try during the coming months.

"There is still some lingering anxiety over what they will get up to over the next couple of months. They definitely are not operating this morning from a place of finishing up work and handing over to the transition," said the employee.