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Feeling The Fiscal Squeeze, EPA Seeks To Slim Down


The Environmental Protection Agency has a lot on its plate, now add to that budget concerns. The agency is hoping to trim its staff. Like a number of other government agencies, the EPA is offering buyouts to employees.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, it's all part of a shrinking federal workforce.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The EPA has a pretty significant workload these days. It's in the process of drafting greenhouse gas emissions standards for new power plants, it's defending its interpretation of the Clean Air Act regarding other greenhouse gas standards before the Supreme Court. And as if those politically-fraught actions aren't enough, the EPA is also trying to reduce its workforce.

The EPA wants to trim the number of its employees by some 1,400 or about 8 percent. Karen Kellen is council president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents EPA workers. She says the buyout targets are all over the board.

KAREN KELLEN: There are some offices where they targeted a lot of managers because they feel they have more managers than they need. The Office of Research and Development, which is our huge research arm of the agency, they've mostly targeted scientists and engineers.

NAYLOR: The EPA's budget was chopped by nearly half a billion dollars last year because of the sequester. Congress restored about 300 million in this year's budget. Kellen says the buyouts are a double-edged sword. They're preferable to layoffs, but she says they'll leave remaining employees with more work to do and, in some cases, work will be left undone.

KELLEN: We have people who are in the middle of projects and, as dedicated scientists, they really don't want to leave it undone, just walk out. But there is a real possibility that there'll be projects just left.

NAYLOR: The EPA did not make anyone available for an interview. In its statement it says the buyouts will, quote, "better position our organization to effectively address agency priorities and mission critical work in the future."

EPA is not alone in trying to trim its workforce. The Social Security Administration is offering early retirement benefits to 200 employees, and the agency that oversees the Voice of America is another offering buyouts. It's a reflection of a reality that runs counter to the narrative that many government critics maintain: The federal government is actually getting smaller.

Max Stier is president of the Partnership for Public Service.

MAX STIER: Government is definitely shrinking. We're seeing more people leave government than are being hired. And some agencies - particularly agencies where there are more significant losses - are using workforce reshaping tools, like the buyouts and EPA is one of them.

NAYLOR: Stier says the government lost a net 40,000 employees last year. And is now, at least in terms of the number of employees it has, the same size as 50 years ago.

STIER: It's about the same absolute size as it was during the Johnson administration. And in relative terms, it's a whole lot smaller. So in the '50s and '60s, there were about 92 residents in the United States for every federal employee. And today, it's 148 residents per federal employee.

NAYLOR: Most of the new hires the government has made in recent years are in agencies that address national security and defense. Those agencies that perform strictly domestic functions are losing employees and that's not likely to change anytime soon. In the case of the EPA, it had around 17,000 employees in 2012. It's projected to have just 15,000 by next fiscal year.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.