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EPA, in Midst of Hiring Spree, Faces Uphill Push for More Staff

July 14, 2021, 10:00 AM

The EPA has hired 500 new employees since President Joe Biden took office, helping to replenish its battered ranks, which stand at a 34-year low, the agency tells Bloomberg Law. Recruiting hundreds more, however, may not be as easy.

The new hires have backfilled about half the vacancies created at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration. But EPA administrator Michael Regan’s hope of adding 1,000 more hinges on both Congress approving Biden’s $11.2 billion budget request for the agency, and on Regan’s ability to maneuver through a hiring process that one former EPA official says isn’t designed for a mass influx of new people.

Historically, the EPA has hired high-ranking employees—professionals with advanced degrees and technical skills—one at a time, reposting the same ad every time a new person is brought on board, according to Alexandra Dunn, who led the agency’s chemicals and pesticides office under Trump.

But one-at-a-time hiring won’t work if an agency wants to quickly acquire a large number of senior personnel, said Michelle Amante, vice president of federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service. It takes 60 to 90 days from the time a candidate is selected until he or she is brought on board, she said.

“There’s no reason they can’t hire for more than one person with the same posting,” Amante said. “Agencies fall into the trap of ‘post and pray,’ which is terrible any day of the week, but especially when you’re trying to hire en masse.”

The EPA does use bulk hiring for entry-level staff, which allows it to bring in multiple employees off a single job advertisement, an agency spokesman said. The agency has also “streamlined” its hiring process, he said, although he didn’t provide details.

The current system for hiring higher-level staff is “madness,” said Alexis Strauss-Hacker, former acting administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region who started under the Carter administration and served through the Trump administration. “It takes several months to hire just one person.”

Dunn said her team was able to negotiate a process with the EPA’s human resources office in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to enable more bulk hiring for experienced chemists, toxicologists, and scientists. But that was only possible because requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act had become an agency priority, said Dunn, now a partner at Baker Botts LLP.

Retirees Staying Retired

Regan told a Senate panel in April that he wanted to try recruiting back some of the staffers who left under Trump. That would help the EPA bring back experienced staffers who know policy issues, are familiar with how the EPA works, and have relationships with other employees.

But the vast majority of the people who left under Trump retired and aren’t looking to return to the workforce, more than a dozen agency veterans told Bloomberg Law. Six retired EPA staffers confirmed to Bloomberg Law that they have no intention of going back.

“If you’ve retired, you’re enjoying time with your grandkids or at your beach house,” said one staffer, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely. “You’ve got your pension. You’re not going to want to come back.”

The EPA spokesman didn’t say how many retirees have been coaxed back to the agency. But anyone who left—whether retired or not—can apply for EPA jobs or reinstatement, and the agency welcomes conversations with interested former employees, he said.

A pathway back to the EPA was smoothed somewhat in July, when the Office of Personnel Management published a final rule letting agencies rehire former workers at higher salaries than when they left.

Under the old rules, ex-employees could only come back at the same levels, even if they picked up new skills and experience. The new rule is meant to “broaden the choices available to agencies when filling vacant positions,” OPM said.

At the EPA, however, the few early- and mid-career employees who left for other jobs “seem to have made their peace with the agency,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in the agency’s Midwest region and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago.

New Channels

The EPA stands a better chance of hitting its hiring goals if it sets out hard targets and deadlines for itself, several agency veterans said.

“They need to plug some people into the hiring process,” Strauss-Hacker said. “Maybe Regan needs to be setting out expectations that 100 people a month are going to be hired.”

Expanding telecommuting rights so new employees can live anywhere in the country would also broaden the talent pool, Dunn said, given the cost of living in the Washington area. Regan hasn’t given any clear signals about permanent changes to the agency’s telecommuting policy.

In the meantime, the EPA is trying new channels to find qualified staff.

The agency has “significantly expanded” outreach to schools, historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, veterans’ groups, and professional organizations, the agency spokesman said. It’s also “maximizing non-competitive hiring authorities, the Pathways programs, direct hire authorities, and recruitment efforts,” and remains in active hiring mode, he said.

The EPA can further lean on its brand as a protector of the environment to bring on more people, Amante said.

“People generally know what the EPA does,” she said. “But if they want to get young people excited, they have to be appealing to them and talking about the exciting contributions they make. You can’t just assume everybody understands that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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