This article, which was first published by Gristand, has been reprinted on Climate Desk as part of a cooperation.
This week, thousands of EPA employees are pressing Congress to fix staffing concerns that they claim are preventing them from effectively achieving the ambitious climate goals of the Biden administration.
In a memo, the leaders of AFGE Council 238—a union that represents almost half of the 14,000 employees at the EPA—said that low compensation and a lack of possibilities for career advancement are contributing to staff overwork and turnover.
Expanding the EPA’s money in the yearly appropriations bill that Congress will draught later this year would allow it to solve these problems. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, two of President Joseph Biden’s key legislative accomplishments, would not be implemented, the union warned.
The EPA Workforce Is Around the Size that It Was Under President Ronald Reagan in The 1980s.
On Monday, union leaders started briefing House members about the situation and outlining a number of requests, including the development of a program to enhance equity and inclusion as well as a more rigorous promotion mechanism. On Wednesday, employees are also organizing a rally at the EPA’s main office.
The measures on Capitol Hill this week have been a long time coming, according to sources acquainted with the EPA’s workforce, according to Grist.
The EPA has been involved in numerous scandals during the previous six years. After former President Donald Trump stripped back dozens of environmental safeguards, hundreds of top staff members left, leaving holes in institutional knowledge that still plague the agency today.
As on-the-ground inspection rates for power plants, refineries, and other pollution sources fell, the COVID-19 pandemic further hindered enforcement initiatives.
The EPA’s purpose is currently expanding in ways that Congress could not have anticipated when the organization was established in the early 1970s due to the threat of climate change.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act will mandate that staff members distribute billions of dollars in grants to state and local projects and expand their Superfund cleanup program to safeguard communities of color that live close to uncontrolled contaminated sites.
The agency will undertake these initiatives in addition to carrying out its regular statutory obligations, which include creating intricate new regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants and stepping up enforcement efforts to make sure businesses are adhering to those regulations. But despite these increased responsibilities, employee levels have not kept up.
The size of the workforce now is comparable to that of the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan was in office. According to the AFGE, the agency will require 20,000 full-time employees, a 40% increase, to carry out the activities it has been given responsibility for.
The problem, according to Nicole Cantello, who worked as an EPA lawyer for three decades until joining AFGE Council 238 full-time in 2020, is not just with hiring but also with retention.
Employees who were approaching retirement age left the company early due to a lack of promotion chances and few work-from-home options. Over 20% of the EPA’s employees have been with the organization for 30 years or longer and may decide to retire shortly.
We have a five to ten-year window here to implement the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Acts, so we want to encourage EPA to develop a retention plan that will keep that cohort at the agency for a bit longer, she said.
An increased workforce would enable the EPA to more thoroughly develop its own science instead of relying on studies created and developed by industrial companies, according to Tim Whitehouse, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is campaigning alongside AFGE in Washington this week.
He cited an EPA initiative that sets regulations for the use of harmful substances including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, sometimes known as “forever chemicals.” Attempts by industrial corporations to hide the dangers of these kinds of chemicals in the past have caused regulatory delays.
According to him, this is a genuine illustration of how EPA divisions with insufficient staff can make errors that have long-term effects on people’s health.
According to EPA spokesperson Melissa Sullivan, the organization is seeking to hire close to 1,800 new personnel, and EPA has some of the lowest turnover rates in the federal government. The agency has substantially increased its outreach campaign to seek qualified people, she continued.
Although the federal government’s pay is frequently below that of the private sector, it can provide employees more stability and other perks, she added. In particular, the agency provides the chance to safeguard the environment and the health of people while also having a beneficial impact on an incalculable number of people’s lives.
The staffing shortages are both personal and existential for AFGE members. These may affect future generations if they are not addressed.
Our mission has expanded significantly, and climate concerns are only becoming worse, but the EPA’s inability to recruit and keep workers has led to a catastrophe, according to AFGE Council 238 President Marie Powell Owens. We must immediately increase salaries and reinstate career ladders. Our planet’s and the EPA’s futures are in jeopardy.