Now that the Senate has confirmed Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the EPA, he will be walking into a beleaguered workplace full of tired, skeptical staffers, current employees say.
For many—but by no means all—Environmental Protection Agency staffers, Biden’s election signaled a return to bedrock environmental principles. But they also say they’re not taking the new administration’s promises at face value, and that Regan will have to prove to them that the EPA will follow through.
Morale at the agency has broadly improved since the Trump administration, but many employees are still waiting for management to repudiate a union contract that was put in place during Andrew Wheeler’s tenure and remains in effect, 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.
Bloomberg Law spoke with a dozen current EPA employees, who said they’ve seen few signs of change in their day-to-day work lives. Most of the staffers declined to be identified in order to speak freely.
“I think the trust will have to be earned back,” said one EPA attorney. “I’m excited, but call me a doubting Thomas. It doesn’t mean you’re not faithful if you want to see it to believe it.”
“While EPA workers have great hope for the Biden administration, the fact is that the EPA was decimated after four years of nonstop attacks from the Trump administration,” Gary Morton, president of AFGE Council 238, said in a statement. “EPA workers were demeaned, science was ignored, vital environmental protections were rolled back and rigged in industry’s favor, and budgets were gutted.”
‘Taking Them Seriously’
EPA spokesman Nick Conger said the Biden team is aware of the problem and will work hard to repair bruised relationships.
“We understand employees have significant concerns and we want the agency’s workforce to know that the new leadership team is aware of these issues and is taking them seriously,” Conger said.
Regan also pledged to work on the issue during his Feb. 3 Senate confirmation hearing. Acknowledging that the damage to staff morale would have to be repaired quickly, the former chief of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said he would “do an assessment to determine how can we best move forward, learn from the past, but stay leaning forward as we solve some of these complex issues.”
Moreover, Biden has only been in office for two months, and many of the most significant changes won’t be implemented until an administrator is installed at the head office.
Concerns About Old Policies
In some cases, employees say they haven’t gotten signs that policies instituted during the Trump era will ever be walked back.
For example, several staffers said they still have to follow a management system implemented during the Trump years and known as the EPA Lean Management System (ELMS), which many deride as a waste of time that doesn’t help them protect the environment.
The system is a set of activities across more than 800 metrics designed to find and fix workflow problems. The system uses wall-mounted boards to measure a team’s progress toward a certain goal, as well as weekly 15-minute group meetings for staff to talk about problems and possible solutions.
One employee in a regional EPA legal office said ELMS is now so baked into the agency’s day-to-day processes that she can’t envision it being removed.
“Many managers have embraced it,” she said. “So many databases have been created in the last six months that now track all the work. It’s not going away.”
The EPA didn’t respond directly to questions about its plans for ELMS, which former agency chief Andrew Wheeler said last year had helped reduce a backlog of new permit applications older than six months by 65%.
Similarly, an employee in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention said a dramatic reorganization of that division in September 2020, which reshuffled the structure of OCSPP’s three main divisions, has created widespread confusion that is continuing.
“A new office is all fine and good, but it’s problematic when you have an HR question or want to make sure your messaging for a sensitive topic is on point, and you have no idea who to turn to or talk to,” the staffer said.
Former EPA officials told a House panel on Wednesday that the agency must work quickly to boost critically depressed morale. The dropoff in morale has “both undermined the work of the EPA and has contributed to the loss of confidence of the American people in its government overall,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who led the agency under President George W. Bush.
Another lingering morale problem is that many EPA career managers who backed the Trump agenda are still on the job, employees say.
For example, the EPA attorney said her managers embraced a September 2020 executive order that banned “divisive” workplace diversity training that contractors and other recipients of federal funding deliver. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking parts of the order, and Biden revoked it the day he took office.
“Everybody fell into line very quickly,” she said of her managers, referring to the initial Trump order. “There was very little pushback. Very few people were saying, ‘Maybe this is pushing the boundaries.’ So I’m thinking, they just conformed so quickly with that stuff, and some of it was illegal, and now you’re saying, ‘O.K., new day, new president’? That’s a concern for me. I don’t want to deal with the same people who enforced illegal policies.”
One former high-ranking EPA official from the Trump era didn’t see a problem with managers following orders from above.
“The notion that Andrew Wheeler or anyone else in the Trump administration mistreated people simply by implementing policies they disagreed with is ridiculous,” she said.
Working With Employees
Conger said the agency’s new leadership is “committed to working with EPA’s employees to make the agency an even better place to work so that our professionals are free to fully dedicate themselves to their work on behalf of the American people, and to the agency’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.”
In response to the union contract, an agency spokesman said the Biden administration will work to address those concerns and will have “collaborative, constructive, and ongoing discussions with EPA’s employees, as well as with the unions that represent them.”
Other members of Biden’s team have made similar pledges.
Janet McCabe, Biden’s nominee for the number two job at the EPA, said during her March 3 Senate confirmation hearing that her “main job, as I understand it, would be to support the amazing workforce. They need a safe environment, they need support, they need respect.”
In the meantime, EPA employees said they’re remaining hopeful.
“I trust the agency is heading in the right direction, but trust stagnates,” said the staffer in the regional counsel’s office. “Anything has got to be better than what we were put through in these last four years, but you can’t just flip a switch.”