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EPA plans to offer buyouts as part of Trump push to shrink workforce

UPDATED: Wed., April 19, 2017

By Brady Dennis Washington Post

The Environmental Protection Agency said this week that it would begin the process of shrinking its 15,000-employee workforce through buyouts, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order last month aimed at streamlining agencies throughout the federal government.

In a letter to regional administrators and other agency officials, EPA acting deputy administrator Mike Flynn said the White House had asked federal agencies to begin taking “immediate actions” aimed at reducing their workforce.

“In light of this guidance, we will begin the steps necessary to initiate an early out/buy out … program,” Flynn wrote, adding that the goal is to complete the program by year’s end.

He also noted that while a governmentwide hiring freeze had been lifted, hiring at EPA would remain at a standstill. “Given our resource situation, we will continue a freeze on external hiring,” Flynn wrote. “Very limited exceptions to this external hiring freeze may be permitted on a case-by-case basis.”

The memo, dated Tuesday, contains little additional detail about the EPA’s plans to shrink its number of employees, and it is probably the first of many similar plans that will be submitted by various agencies.

But the EPA, in particular, has been a central target of the Trump administration. The president has promised in the past to reduce the agency to “tidbits.” His proposed budget would slash the agency’s funding by 31 percent, cut about 3,200 workers, obliterate funding for climate change research and Superfund cleanups, and scrap more than 50 programs. Among them: efforts aimed at improving energy efficiency, funding infrastructure projects in Native American communities and cleaning up the Great Lakes.

What exactly would the workforce reduction efforts detailed in this week’s memo look like? The Post’s Eric Yoder explains:

“A buyout – also called a voluntary separation incentive payment or VSIP – is a cash payment to entice a federal employee to leave voluntarily. The maximum in most cases is $25,000 per person, although the payment is taxable, reducing its take-home value by several thousand dollars at least.

”Employees accepting a buyout must leave by a specific date and can’t return to federal employment within five years unless they repaid the entire, pretax buyout amount. . Commonly, buyouts are paired with early retirement offers.

“Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA), in federal lingo, allows federal employees to retire before they hit the standard combinations of age and years of service. There are two main federal retirement systems, one called the Civil Service Retirement System and the other the Federal Employees Retirement System. The former generally applies to those first hired before 1984, now less than a tenth of the workforce – but that also means they are older and closer to retirement on average.

“Early retirement offers allow employees under either system to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service or any age with 25 years, potentially subject to a reduction in benefits.“

Actually laying off federal workers, a process known as Reduction in Force, or RIF, requires a lengthy process that experts say can be disruptive, tedious and expensive. RIFs have not been widely used for decades, and agencies generally try to avoid them, opting first for other approaches, such as reducing travel and other expenses, as well as reducing the number of employees through attrition.

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