Older Workers in EPA Program Blame Agency for Low Pay (1)

June 24, 2019, 7:38 PM; Updated: June 25, 2019, 12:57 AM

People in a program for older workers at the EPA haven’t gotten raises in years, the agency’s inspector general said in a June 24 report.

The Senior Environmental Employment program hires people 55 and older who work on Environmental Protection Agency projects that include pollution prevention and administrative and clerical support. The program can help the agency as it deals with hiring freezes and worker departures.

The pay scale, which ranges from $7.27 to $18.16 an hour, hasn’t changed since 2010. Moreover, from 2011 to 2018, SEE workers didn’t get any raises, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General found. The program’s manager said low hourly wages are “the biggest challenge facing the program,” according to the report.

Nearly 90% of the SEE workers expressed pay scale concerns. One reported not getting a raise in more than 10 years, the report said. Another told the inspector general that “the enrollees work very hard and the pay scale should be re-evaluated,” and another said the compensation is “very low.”

Further, EPA staffers told the Office of Inspector General that the older-workers program is “the only avenue to get badly needed support” because of an inability to hire full-time-equivalent employees.

The program’s budget fell 14% from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2017, and the number of workers enrolled in it fell 12.5% during the same period.

The report said the EPA responded by saying it would revise its internal processes for reviewing and setting wage ranges, with a target completion date of April 30, 2020. The department didn’t immediately respond to an interview request.

Richard Kuhlman, director of the office of grants administration at EPA during the George W. Bush administration, told Bloomberg Environment that he didn’t find the report particularly concerning, especially since the department said it had committed to working on the problem.

“The SEE program is a very large program with many, many moving parts, spread across most offices and regions in EPA,” Kuhlman said. “For a program of this magnitude and scope to have only a few set of findings speaks volumes about how well the OIG must think the program is managed.”

Trends for Older Workers

More broadly in the U.S., wages for workers aged 55 to 64 have only grown 0.8% over the last 12 years, according to The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. By contrast, workers ages 35 to 54 saw a 4.7% wage increase over the same period.

Maura Porcelli, managing director of the National Council of Aging’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, said older workers are vulnerable “across the board, across all industries” and are commonly pushed out when businesses seek to cut expenses.

Only 10% of workers who leave the workforce are able to earn as much as they did while they were employed full time, Porcelli said.

Emailed Guidance

The inspector general’s report also found that the EPA doesn’t provide adequate guidance to the staffers who oversee the older workers, and so some were unclear about matters such as overtime and their status as temporary workers.

The SEE program manager told the inspector general that guidance is provided to the managers via email.

The program also emailed groups that serve as liaisons between the EPA and the workers to remind them about the rules on hours, and it has started to offer more training for coordinators and monitors in the program, the report said.

The Office of Inspector General also found that the EPA didn’t store its yearly reviews of the program in the department’s database. The SEE program manager said that the reviews are conducted, but stored on a shared drive rather than in the database because the technology was too cumbersome.

(Adds former EPA official's response in 8th and 9th paragraphs.)

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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