Employee morale at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not improved since the departure of former administrator Scott Pruitt in July and, in fact, is worsening as President Donald Trump’s political appointees grow more entrenched inside the agency, EPA employees tell ThinkProgress.
In the first year of the Trump administration, rumors swirled about massive employee layoffs and the possible closure of regional offices. President Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the use of science in developing rules and regulations contributed to fears among career employees about the agency veering away from its core mission.
That stress took an even greater toll on career EPA employees in the second year of the Trump presidency, according to Nicole Cantello, a chief steward with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704 in Chicago.
“The employee morale is horrible here,” Cantello told ThinkProgress. “A lot of employees kept up a pretty good morale under Pruitt because they thought they were fighting against something and that once he left, things would change for the better. But they haven’t. So there was a letdown there.”
Contributing to the anxiety are concerns about the EPA’s implementation of a major reorganization plan. Career employees are worried the changes will lead to their transfers into new divisions. At the agency-wide level, they are concerned it will allow political appointees in Washington to exert tighter control over their work.
The employees are also stressed about their own job security after seeing so many of their colleagues leave since Trump took office. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s constant attacks on the value of science for fighting climate change and pollution have contributed to the rock-bottom morale.
Structural changes spur staff shrinkage fears
One of the goals of the reorganization, announced by Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in September, will be to make the EPA’s 10 regional offices mirror headquarters. Each regional office, for example, would have eight divisions, matching the structure of headquarters.
Agency officials hope the reorganization will give headquarters staff a better look at how the regional offices operate. Employees worry the changes will transfer more power to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where the agency can exert greater control over rule enforcement and scientific research.
None of the agency’s 10 regional offices are expected to be closed or consolidated with another office as part of the reorganization.
Agency staff, such as enforcement staff and scientists, will be placed in their own silos, separating them from the diverse teams on which they previously worked. Employees who spoke to ThinkProgress contend that this isolation will lead to less effective regulation and will make it easier for top EPA officials to exert control over these separated groups of employees.
As part of the EPA’s reorganization effort, existing employees — many of whom have worked for the agency for more than 30 years — are also being told to submit their resumes and transcripts of their college coursework to the personnel department, a requirement that isn’t sitting well with longtime employees.
“Reducing the staff at the EPA is part of the overall game plan. And they’re achieving that through a combination of all the tools they’ve used — buyouts, retirements, early retirements, and terminations — without hiring replacements,” Mike Mikulka, president of AFGE Local 704, told ThinkProgress.
At its peak staffing level in fiscal year 1999, more than 18,000 people worked for the EPA. Almost 20 years later, the EPA’s workforce has dropped by 22 percent. Since Trump took office, federal records show that nearly 1,600 workers have left the EPA through buyouts or retirements. Fewer than 400 employees have been hired since January 2017, creating a substantial net loss of staffers, many of whom are taking their hard-to-find expertise with them.
As of September 2018, the most recent date for which the agency has provided employee data, the entire EPA workforce totaled 13,981, down by more than 8 percent from April 2017, near the start of the Trump presidency, when the agency had a staff of about 15,220. In comparison, during the Obama administration, EPA staff numbers peaked at 17,359 in fiscal year 2011 before falling to 14,779 in 2016 and climbing back to 15,408 in 2017.
Workforce levels now stand below the count at the end of the Reagan administration — another Republican president who made cutting the size of the agency one of his top agenda items. In fiscal year 1988, President Reagan’s final year in office, the number of EPA employees totaled about 14,400.
The EPA’s workforce decline is occurring even though Congress has refused to cut the agency’s budget. Over the past two years, the Trump administration has proposed cutting the agency’s budget by more than 30 percent. Both years, Congress — Republicans and Democrats — voted to keep the agency’s budget at the same funding level as the final year of the Obama administration.
The EPA did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on the declining staff numbers.
“The concerns that we’ve been expressing all along are that the administration is trying to reduce EPA staff by any means possible,” Mikulka said. “They’re draining people out of here like there’s no tomorrow.”
First they came for the climate scientists
The EPA’s reduced emphasis on science could have long-term implications beyond the Trump presidency. Agency officials have told employees and advisory committee members, for example, that they want a “de-emphasis” on climate change across the agency.
Previously, EPA staffers thought the administration would go after only the jobs of agency scientists who were solely focused on climate change. “Now, they are finding that it could also be them,” said Cantello, a lawyer in the EPA’s Chicago office who has worked at the agency for almost 30 years.
In late September, for example, the EPA went after a top official who focused on children’s issues and was not a climate scientist. Dr. Ruth Etzel, director of the agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, was placed on administrative leave. After getting no explanation from the EPA about the change, Etzel spoke out publicly about how the agency was neglecting to take measures to protect children from lead poisoning and other environmental hazards.
With the Trump administration’s honeymoon period over, top EPA officials are making a bigger imprint across the agency, including in Region 5, the largest of the agency’s regional offices.
“It’s quite apparent that the administration is moving toward a situation where they will be able to control the voices of scientists, they will be able to control the research of scientists, and they’ll be able to control the work of scientists to ensure that the special interests win out again,” said Frank Lagunas, a union steward in the agency’s Chicago office and a water quality scientist for the EPA.
Lagunas, who also serves as the legislative and political coordinator for AFGE Local 704, feels an obligation to speak out about the changes that are occurring under the Trump administration, especially EPA headquarters’ move toward centralizing control and its focus on shrinking agency staff numbers.
“If we don’t speak up, it’s going to take decades to repair the damage that is being done,” Lagunas said.
Region 5, for instance, has seen its workforce levels fall from 1,086 at the start of the Trump presidency to 982 employees by the end of September, a 9.6 percent decrease.
When Trump entered the White House in January 2017, one of his top priorities was to dismantle the EPA — or at least pursue all possible measures to drastically curb the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission of enforcing life-saving environmental rules and regulations.
“Scientists are leaving the agency at such a rate that has never been seen,” said Lagunas. “That’s not a coincidence.”
Under the Obama administration, EPA scientists would occasionally feel pressure from their managers to downplay the effects of air and water pollution on public health. But employees did not feel like their jobs were in jeopardy, Lagunas said.
“With the Trump administration, absolutely your jobs are in jeopardy,” he insisted. “You do fear for your job now and that you will be undermined. They will find a way to remove you from your position if you do not toe the line.”
Skepticism of EPA grows among public
EPA employees are discovering that the general public is aware of the major changes occurring at the agency under Trump. When EPA employees go into communities, they often hear citizens express skepticism about the agency’s true intentions, a feeling that wasn’t as pronounced under previous administrations.
“The striking difference since 2016 has been when I’m out in the community, people seem to be a little more uncertain about steps that the EPA might take in the community,” said Heriberto Leon, a union steward for AFGE Local 704 and a community involvement coordinator for the EPA’s Superfund program.
“The way that that expresses itself is at community meetings,” explained Leon. “People will ask questions like, ‘Is EPA going to be around to finish up the cleanup at this site? Will EPA have enough funding to be able to do what you are saying is the proposed plan to clean up at this site?’”
The Trump administration’s most high-profile policy changes at the EPA have been the rollbacks of numerous clean air and clean water regulations. Under both Pruitt and Wheeler, the EPA has proposed to weaken key regulations that protect air and water.
Asked if there are differences in how the EPA communicates with the public under the Trump administration, Leon acknowledged that “even during the Obama administration, communication could be very heavily controlled.”
Under the Trump administration, though, EPA headquarters highlights Superfund cleanups as its priority in press releases on a regular basis. Under President Obama, the EPA did not tout the goals or achievements of the administration as frequently as it does under Trump, Leon said.
Many of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, however, have been overturned in court. But even if the courts routinely side with environmental groups, the Trump administration has another option at its disposal to reduce the power of the EPA: cutting workforce levels. Without adequate staffing levels, the EPA cannot carry out its legal mandate to protect the environment and public health.
EPA staffers view the current reorganization effort to create a more centralized system at the EPA as another hardship placed on employees, explained Mikukla, and another way that the Trump administration is trying to get people to quit their jobs or be less effective at their jobs.
The reorganization plan “is taking employees’ time away from doing their normal work, which is supposed to be protecting human health and the environment,” Mikulka said. “I’m not sure the administration really wants to protect human health and the environment with all the initiatives they have going and the rule rollbacks.”
“They’re draining people out of here like there’s no tomorrow.”
Mikulka emphasized that employee morale at the EPA has not improved with Wheeler taking over as EPA’s interim head. Both men pursued the same aggressive deregulatory agenda; the only difference between the two is that Wheeler has yet to experience a string of ethical lapses similar to Pruitt’s, he said.
According to a new survey released December 12 by the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group, job satisfaction fell in 2018 at a majority of federal agencies, including the EPA. EPA employees also gave their senior leaders a score of 38 out of 100, a 7-point decline from last year.
So, as morale drops, staffing levels decline, and employees are not replaced, environmental enforcement could suffer in EPA offices across the country. “It’s hard for someone in D.C. to say what’s going on in rural Wisconsin,” Mikulka emphasized. “At least here, we have a better handle on that. It’s another tactic that they are using to cut the staff at the EPA.”
In the Chicago office, a total of $3 million allocated to the region was left unused in fiscal year 2018 because the employee count had dropped so low, noted Mikulka, who doesn’t remember large sums of appropriated funds for the EPA getting left on the table in prior administrations.
“If the administration wants to reduce staff at the EPA and Congress appropriates the money, if you go slow on hiring then you won’t have an adequate staff at the EPA,” he said. “The president’s goal of reducing the staff by 40 or 50 percent by the end of his first term in office will then be achieved.”
EPA sees across-the-board staff decline
In EPA regional offices — which are crucial to carrying out the agency’s agenda — staff numbers dropped from 7,257 in April 2017 to 6,650 in September 2018.
The Region 7 office in Kansas City saw the biggest decline during this time period, with its workforce shrinking 12.8 percent to 455 employees. The region oversees states where agriculture is among the biggest industries. Agribusiness interests have been among the most vocal critics of the EPA’s clean water and air rules.
The New York office, which oversees Region 2, saw its numbers drop about 5.7 percent to 743 staffers. Here, the EPA likely decided against a reduction in the staffing levels because the regional office includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and the agency has been helping the islands recover from Hurricane Maria, Judith Enck, former EPA Region 2 administrator, told ThinkProgress.
Staffing inside the EPA’s major offices also is on the decline. The Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance has fallen in both years of Trump’s presidency. By September 2018, the office had dropped to 623 employees, down from 730 in April 2017.
Meanwhile, workforce levels in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development also remain on a downward trend. Between April 2017 and December 2017, the office saw its staffing levels drop from 1,680 to 1,596. In 2018, the office’s employee count dropped off again, falling to 1,504 employees by September.
Elsewhere inside the EPA, the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention lost 59 employees between April 2017 and December 2017. The office saw its staff numbers stabilize, however, growing slightly from 968 a year ago to 972 in September 2018.
Many EPA employees have resigned since Trump took office out of frustration with the administration’s goal of rolling back environmental regulations. Other employees have pledged to stick it out at the EPA, despite the anxiety that comes with working for an agency under constant attack by the president.
The polluter-friendly priorities of the Trump administration will make it more difficult to fight climate change in the United States and will lead to greater contamination of the air and water. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, many of which are located near fossil fuel-fired power plants or oil refineries, are expected to face a disproportionate impact from Trump’s emphasis on gutting the EPA.
“EPA staff were stretched even before the Trump administration unilaterally decided to embrace deregulation and not enforce environmental laws,” Enck said. “Cuts to enforcement staff, in particular, will result in increased levels of air and water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals.”