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Help Wanted at EPA, But Swift Hiring Remains a Question Mark

Nov. 17, 2020, 11:01 AM

One of the EPA’s first challenges when President-elect Joe Biden takes office will be to quickly hire scientists, regulatory officials, and even administrative staffers to make up for staff cuts under the Trump administration, current and former agency officials say.

But they’re also concerned the hiring won’t happen quickly, because of congressional budget limits and the bureaucracy involved in bringing new federal employees on board.

Biden has already laid out a bold agenda for the Environmental Protection Agency, including reviving regulations on climate pollutants and beefing up the agency’s environmental justice work. But the new EPA’s ability to quickly get started on that work could be hamstrung by the fact that the agency’s ranks have fallen under President Donald Trump to about 14,200—down 14.3% from the average level during the Obama administration.

Staffing is also down about one-fifth from its peak in 1999, “even though the agency’s statutory responsibilities have increased considerably,” said Joel Mintz, a former EPA chief attorney in the Ford and Carter administrations and now an environmental law professor at the Nova Southeastern University College of Law.

Yohannes Abraham, who is running Biden’s transition, on Nov. 13 told reporters that the campaign will have a “robust personnel effort” early in its first term, and has launched a new feature on its transition website encouraging people to apply for jobs in the administration.

Clean Energy for Biden, a group of industry leaders supporting the president-elect, has also posted an online form for those who want to work in the administration.

Inefficient Hiring

More EPA workers are aging and retiring, even as the process to bring on new ones can drag out for months.

“The EPA struggles to efficiently hire people,” 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.

For example, in the San Francisco regional office where Strauss-Hacker worked, candidates who were made job offers in July “still don’t have a chair and start date,” she said. Current employees in other offices who spoke on condition of background confirmed those observations.

The agency is also handcuffed by its $9 billion budget. If it needs more staff in one program—for example, those focused on environmental justice—it can’t move more than 10 people from another program, or 10% of the staffing of an affected program or office, without getting congressional approval.

But the EPA does have some tools for speeding the process along. The transition team can work with congressional appropriators to discuss ways of moving money around internally, according to a recent policy paper from three former EPA and Council on Environmental Quality officials, part of the Climate 21 Project.

Science, Enforcement Officials First

Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under former President Barack Obama, said the agency’s top priority should be to replenish its scientific ranks. She said some scientists have left the agency as the Trump administration has made its antipathy to science clear.

The Climate 21 policy paper called on the Biden team to spend its first 100 days laying the groundwork for an increased budget. Those funds should be used to quickly hire people to work on new rules on greenhouse gases with the Office of Air and Radiation, legal matters in the Office of General Counsel, enforcement, and environmental justice issues.

Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in the agency’s Midwest region and president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago, also said the agency needs to hire more staff to strengthen enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Superfund program, as well as to bulk up its Freedom of Information Act office.

Anne Kelly, a former special assistant to EPA Region 1 under President Bill Clinton, added that the EPA will also have to bulk up staffing for the environmental justice work Biden has repeatedly said he wants to prioritize at the agency.

No Lack of Candidates

NRDC’s McCarthy and Kelly said they’re confident the incoming Biden administration won’t be at a loss for candidates.

“All sorts of experienced individuals that were deeply disheartened by the Trump EPA—I think they will come flocking back to do responsible work,” said Kelly, now vice president of government relations at Ceres, a nonprofit founded by investors and environmentalists.

The Biden team should also prioritize minority hiring, said Ruth Greenspan Bell, a former managing attorney at the EPA’s Office of General Counsel who started in the Carter administration and served through the Clinton administration. The website for potential political posts within the Biden administration includes questions about gender and race.

“If you don’t have those perspectives, you miss a lot,” said Bell, now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “When you have more people at the table with different perspectives, the research shows that you come up with more creative, interesting, and effective answers.”

Some Already Hiring

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has spoken often about the need to hire new staff, as well as the challenges the agency faces in recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce.

In some cases, the agency is already moving to bring more people on board. For example, the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention recently hired 18 scientists to support the implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and is trying to fill more than 50 positions at its Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, according to an agency spokesman.

Nevertheless, Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress asked to pare staffing even further, to 12,610.

Once new people are hired, the coronavirus pandemic that has kept workers at home could paradoxically make it easier to quickly build relationships with career staff, because “everyone is so used to working from home now,” said Kevin Minoli, who worked at the EPA from 2000 to 2018.

Establishing personal relationships between the new political leadership and the rank and file is one of the least-appreciated parts of a transition, said Minoli, now a partner at Alston & Bird LLP.

“Everybody’s new; everybody is going to be measuring everybody up for a while,” he said. “So the team that comes in, in that first 100 days, the most important thing they can do is build that relationship and trust, and get the workforce on their side.”

—With assistance from Courtney Rozen, Pat Rizzuto, and Ellen M. Gilmer.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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