The goal is 8 new hires a day for 3 months

By Robin Bravender | 07/17/2015 01:10 PM EDT

U.S. EPA is on a hiring spree, trying to add as many as 800 new staffers in less than 100 days.

With a workforce shrunk by buyouts, retirements and budget cuts to the smallest level since the George H.W. Bush administration, EPA is racing to fill empty slots as quickly as possible.

But the hiring push faces obstacles, including a cumbersome federal hiring process, an accelerated pace of retirements and restrictions on how EPA can replace former staffers.


"We’re feeling busy," EPA’s human resources chief, Karl Brooks, said in an interview this week. "Senior colleagues of mine say that the agency hasn’t been in this position to bring so many people on board in well over a decade."

EPA’s top brass, including Administrator Gina McCarthy, is paying close attention to the hiring frenzy, and there’s pressure to ensure that the agency fleshes out its staff while it has a green light from Congress.

"It’s a good calculation, I think, by my boss that we’re in a better position going forward in a pretty uncertain budget climate in [fiscal 2016] and [fiscal 2017] and the out years if we have fully utilized and committed the budget authority that we had from the Congress in this fiscal year," Brooks said.

"It’s a prudent thing to do, because there are a lot of other executive branch agencies when they go to OMB every year that would probably be delighted to make the case that some of our budget authority could be their budget authority so they could hire more people."

EPA had about 14,500 staffers nationwide in mid-May, thanks in part to a series of buyouts and early retirement incentives that prompted nearly 500 former staffers to leave the agency. So EPA is now hustling to get back up to the 15,000 full-time employees allowed by congressional appropriations in the current fiscal year.

In what’s now being called "The Brooks Memo," the human resources chief alerted his colleagues in May to plans to expedite hiring.

EPA relies on service centers based in Las Vegas; Cincinnati; and Research Triangle Park, N.C., to hire for its 10 regional offices and 13 national programs. EPA managers have prompted those service centers to be nimbler and more targeted in where they place advertisements and to do necessary paperwork more quickly.

"They need to be on their game over the course of the summer and the fall," Brooks said.

But even as EPA expedites its hiring, some longtime employees are heading for the exits, complicating efforts to beef up staff.

Since May 1, the agency has hired 152 people, EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said this week. During that same period, 156 people left.

That number isn’t surprising, she added, given that July has historically marked EPA’s second-highest attrition period.

"Just as we’re trying to bring a bunch of new people into the agency, we have people retire for a bunch of different reasons," Brooks said.

He sometimes jokes with McCarthy and her deputy, Stan Meiburg, "that they should have that power that Donald Rumsfeld had during the run-up to the first Iraq War," he said. "He could prevent service people from leaving the armed services. … He could with the stroke of a pen stop them. We can’t do that here."

Continuing staff departures aren’t the only hurdle EPA’s human resources department is facing.

The agency must also restructure the positions that were vacated during the buyouts. The EPA inspector general’s office this week issued a report finding that several positions had been improperly filled using the same job descriptions (Greenwire, July 14).

Brooks’ office agreed with the IG’s suggestion to verify that new positions were in fact different from those that had been vacated. The hiring centers will verify that the new posts aren’t the same as those that were filled previously. "We can implement that, I think, without losing stride on this," Brooks said.

‘Happy to get more bodies on board’

The new hires have come as a relief to some EPA employees who have been concerned about increasing workloads.

"I think we’re all happy to get more bodies on board," said Karen Kellen, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ national chapter that represents EPA workers. "Having new blood in general kind of refreshes an office."

Still, she said, employees have some concerns about the speed of the hiring process. Some staffers are worried that already tight training budgets will be strained even further as an influx of new staff requires a sizable chunk of training cash. And career staffers at EPA are concerned that there isn’t enough time for them to move around within the agency as management looks to bring in new staff from the outside.

"If they could just do it in a way that allows people to move around a little bit and get some mobility, that would make a lot of people happier," Kellen said.

She doubts that the agency will meet its goal of reaching 15,000 staffers by Sept. 30. "It’s unrealistic to think they’ll actually get that many people hired by the end of the fiscal year," she said.

Brooks said his office has been talking with unions about their concerns, but he disagrees that training and employee mobility will suffer.

When it comes to training budgets, he said, "we’ve actually got more training money now than we’ve had for the last three fiscal years."

And Brooks sees plenty of internal mobility for career employees.

"If an ambitious person wants to broaden their career here, or wants to step up and take on new work, there’s a pretty good chance that she can do that, either in a region or in headquarters," he said. "I don’t think we’ve closed any doors, and we’ve opened a lot more here in the last year or so."