EPA plans early-outs targeted at higher grades

Monday - 2/3/2014, 1:44pm EST

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued targeted early-retirement and buyout offers to hundreds of employees nationwide, according to one of the unions that represents EPA workers.

EPA sought approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget in December to offer voluntary early-retirement authority (VERA) and voluntary separation payments (VSIP). As of Friday, EPA was still awaiting approval, but it's expected to come soon.

EPA officials are planning to offer early-outs at 19 different offices within the agency, spanning all 10 regions, according to the American Federation of Government Employees. Workers who sign up can receive up to $25,000 and will have to be off the rolls by early April.

In a statement provided to Federal News Radio, the EPA confirmed the agency would offer early-out offers "where it makes sense and where it is aligned with new approaches to our work," but offered few additional details on the number of employees affected.

The need for buyouts was determined at the regional and program-office level. "They have targeted positions and grades that made the most sense for their organization — VERA/VSIPs address multiple GS levels and skill sets," according to EPA's statement.

The buyout offers were first reported by Inside EPA.

An 'extra push out the door'

The offers are mostly targeted to employees at the higher end of the General Schedule, GS-13 through GS-15, said John O'Grady, president of the AFGE local in region 5, which covers the Midwest including Chicago.

"They are trying to get some of the higher paid people out — that's obvious. ... They're trying to give a little extra push or shove out the door for the higher-graded people," he said. "And that will reduce salary cost."

In region 5, the EPA is targeting a maximum of 147 positions, O'Grady said. In order for the buyouts to be "successful," at least 80 employees will have to accept the offers, he added. That would allow the agency to refill some positions with new, lower-paid hires, O'Grady said.

Thanks to the across-the-board sequestration cuts and other fiscal pressures, the EPA has curbed hiring in recent years. But that left the agency "challenged in its ability to acquire new talent, build diversity, and develop new skills," the agency said in its statement. Buyouts, on the other hand, will leave the agency "better positioned to address agency priorities," according to the statement.

But O'Grady said the union doesn't necessarily view the buyouts as a positive step.

"As far as I know, Congress has not rescinded any environmental laws, so we have just as much work to do as we did the year before," he said.

In fact, EPA workers across the country are working harder than ever since many state environmental agencies, faced with budget shortfalls of their own, have also downsized, he added.

"If they reduce their staff and we reduce our staff, who's going to do the work?" O'Grady said.

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