EPA Employees on edge as Trump team reorganizes

Source: Robin Bravender and Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, September 28, 2018

EPA is reshuffling its science, human resources and regional offices, leaving staffers worried about the quality of the agency’s work and about their careers.

Top EPA officials yesterday informed staff that they plan to eliminate the agency’s science adviser’s office and merge those positions into a division within EPA’s larger science shop, the Office of Research and Development, according to an employee who attended the meeting. EPA is also planning to combine its human resources office with its information technology division, sources told E&E News.

These latest moves come as the Trump administration pursues a broader reorganization at the agency, including a revamp of regional offices across the country. Staffers say they’re still waiting for details about how it will shake out and what it means for their jobs, but they’re nervous in the meantime.

Employees are “very anxious,” said Joe Edgell, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280, which represents EPA employees in headquarters.

“The union has been notified that there are a tremendous number of reorgs going on right now,” he said.

Top EPA officials are telling staff that the plans are “more efficient or more logically organized,” he said. But “with reorgs come uncertainty about one’s job, about one’s job assignments, about the work that people do in terms of protecting the environment, so people are very anxious with that change. Given that there haven’t been a lot of specifics about these reorgs, that enhances the anxiety.”

EPA science staffers piled into conference rooms and auditoriums at headquarters and labs across the country yesterday for a meeting where they were informed of the planned changes, according to the EPA employee. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, the career staffer currently leading the Office of Research and Development, informed employees that the agency intends to merge the EPA science adviser’s office with ORD’s Office of Science Policy and a branch of the National Center for Environmental Research.

The science adviser’s office houses about two dozen employees tasked with providing science advice across the agency. In addition to the top science adviser, the office houses EPA’s Scientific Integrity Office, the Science and Technology Policy Council, and other programs.

The details of the merger aren’t clear, but the employee at yesterday’s meeting expressed concern about what the merger means for the ability of the science adviser’s office to effectively coordinate science throughout the agency.

The affected EPA officials were told that their jobs and their roles would be maintained, but some are nervous, given the lack of details.

EPA’s press office did not respond to requests for comment about its reorganization plans.

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the reorganization will “diminish the science adviser’s office.”

Such a move, he said, would decrease the science adviser’s independence and “suggests a lack of interest in unfiltered science advice, which can only make the agency less effective in protecting public health and the environment.”

‘Things are being rushed’

EPA is also planning to merge its human resources branch — the Office of Administration and Resources Management — with its Office of Environmental Information, according to a presentation given to union officials yesterday and obtained by E&E News.

The new office, titled the Office of Mission Support, would “improve the Agency’s ability to deliver on its mission to protect human health and the environment,” according to the presentation. The new office will combine EPA’s work on contracts, facilities, grants, human capital, information technology and information management activities.

Some career EPA employees are worried about how fast the agency is moving with that merger. They suspect leadership might be moving quickly in creating the Office of Mission Support to avoid having the next Congress — which could include a newly Democratic-controlled House after the midterm elections — weigh in.

“We are taking two broken organizations and forming them into one broken organization,” said one EPA staffer. “These things are being rushed through before potentially a new Congress comes in.”

The number of EPA employees has been in decline under the Trump administration after last year’s round of buyouts and as others take retirement. Nevertheless, the agency’s funding has stayed relatively level, with lawmakers so far rejecting deep budget cuts proposed by Trump.

EPA is also changing the structure of its regional offices, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced to staff earlier this month.

Wheeler said the “realignment” is designed to allow for consistent implementation of EPA rules, better allocation of agency resources, greater transparency, more coordination between headquarters and regional branches, and facilitating “the agency’s overall operational excellence” (E&E News PM, Sept. 6).

Some employees worry that the reorganizations are a way to even further reduce staffing at EPA, which can’t be accomplished through buyouts or the budget.

“Do I see this as another subtle way to force more people out? Yeah, I think so,” said that career EPA employee. “I think there will be some people who are not going to be happy about these changes.”

Another career staffer noted that by shifting offices around, employees can end up with new managers and even see their old jobs come to an end. That can reduce morale, resulting in more people leaving the agency.

“They [EPA political leadership] can’t do it through budget or through just firing people, so let’s do it through reorganization after reorganization to whittle it down and take apart the regulatory functions,” said the career EPA employee.

“It is changing who you report to. Now you’re doing a new job, reporting to a new manager, and the work you were doing now stops.”