In a large office in an eastern city, a woman works 36 hours a week at the EPA processing and issuing permits—a task she said only one other person in her office knows how to do.
The woman, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely, is a retiree who works in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) program. The program was created nearly four decades ago to let older workers—some of them EPA retirees, but many not—use their skills at the EPA, while keeping active and earning some extra money.
The EPA has come to rely on the program to fill in gaps from hiring freezes and worker departures, according to program participants. But its pay scale for the senior workers hasn’t risen since 2010—even as federal employees have gotten raises of more than 5% between 2011-2018, according to the agency’s inspector general.
And while the program isn’t intended to offer permanent employment at the EPA, many of the workers view themselves that way, and some have been working for the agency for more than two decades, the OIG found.
“Quite a few SEEs need the money to survive,” said the permit handler, who earns $12.72 an hour. “I think they’re making up for their low staffing by using SEEs,” she said of the EPA.
The retirees’ hourly pay starts at $7.27 for clerical work and rises to a ceiling of $18.16 for professional and scientific positions. The EPA positions also provide health insurance, filing a gap for some senior workers who aren’t yet old enough to get Medicare.
An EPA spokeswoman said that program enrollees “participate in a work experience program that is fundamentally different than EPA’s federal employees. While enrollees play an important role in supporting EPA’s mission, it is incorrect to assume that the responsibilities are interchangeable with those of the agency’s federal employees.”
The EPA program differs from other federal agency programs that bring back retirees as contractors at close to their full-time pay rates. Instead, the EPA administers the program through grantee organizations, including the National Older Worker Career Center and Senior Service America Inc., as part of a decades-old anti-poverty program to provide work for seniors at closer to minimum wage. The grantees manage many of the terms and benefits, though the EPA still has the power to set wages.
An ‘Essential’ Program
Without a full complement of older workers in the program, the EPA’s capabilities “would suffer significantly” because the agency would have to shift full-time staffers into jobs now being done by the retiree corps, said Stan Meiburg, who served as the EPA’s acting deputy administrator in the Obama administration.
“EPA has been short-staffed for many years,” said Meiburg, now director of the graduate program in sustainability at Wake Forest University. “Many of the high-profile things the agency does—like issuing permits, doing enforcement actions, doing Superfund—depend upon back-office functions that you don’t see, but are nevertheless essential.”
The EPA has shed its full-time staff to just over 14,000 in fiscal 2019, the lowest level since the late 1980s. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has also indicated the agency faces challenges in recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce.
The program’s importance to the EPA’s mission was underscored in the Office of Inspector General report, which quoted one EPA program coordinator as saying that “SEE enrollee services are greatly needed.” Another employee who monitors the program told the OIG that retirees “do a great deal of work and the compensation is very low.”
Frozen wages could eventually force some retirees to leave the program, some participants said.
In recent years, the program has shrunk by a quarter, from 1,111 employees in fiscal 2015 to 831 at the end of 2019, in lockstep with cuts to the agency’s full-time ranks.
“I can go to my local car wash and make $2 an hour more than what I’m making now,” said another program participant, one of a half dozen who all spoke to Bloomberg Law on condition they not be named. “But I really want to use my skills for a good cause, like saving the environment.”
EPA Says Wages Are Sufficient
In response to the OIG’s report, the EPA said the current wage structure “suffices.”
But the same report also quoted the SEE program’s manager as saying low hourly wages are “the biggest challenge facing the program.” The report found that 88% of the retirees interviewed by the OIG were concerned about their pay.
The average EPA employee’s salary in 2018 was $116,870.02, or $56 an hour, according to FederalPay.org, a database of pay scales. An EPA spokeswoman cautioned that it wasn’t appropriate to compare the retiree program wages to federal pay because the work is “in no way comparable,” and many factors affect pay, “such as expertise, independence in managing work, and the complexity of that work.”
The EPA also told its OIG the wage comparison is “inappropriate” because no comparable labor market exists for Americans who are 55 and older.
The EPA did tell its watchdog it will write new procedures for reviewing and setting wage rates. But the EPA spokeswoman didn’t respond directly to whether retiree pay would rise.
Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, said the EPA’s responsibility to its workers only goes so far.
“Frankly, it’s the employees’ responsibility to have saved up by the time they’re 55 for their future retirement,” Edwards said. “If they’re retired at 55, this should be gravy.”
Raising wages would have the unintended consequence of reducing the number of program enrollees, according to the EPA. The agency also said it internally reviewed and discussed the workers’ wages over the last two years, and that health benefits “make up for the lower wages.”
Health insurance benefits under the retiree program don’t require enrollees to pay premiums, according to the EPA spokeswoman. Moreover, the program and its grantee organizations are “fully compliant with applicable state and local wage laws,” she said.
But the retiree who works on permits said her insurance comes with an $1,800 deductible. Her deductible for catastrophic coverage is $3,500, she said.
“If you’re making $24,000 a year, that’s not exactly a wonderful medical insurance program,” she said.
Another retired worker said the program’s health insurance is the primary reason she keeps her job, for which she earns $11.80 an hour as an administrative assistant and works 32 hours a week.
“I would not be able to survive on my current wage only,” she said.
The grantee organizations negotiate insurance benefits, not the EPA, according to the agency spokeswoman.
“That being said, EPA is very proud of the generous health benefits that are provided to enrollees,” she said.
A loose coalition of retirees have organized letter-writing campaigns seeking higher pay aimed at senior staff, but those efforts haven’t yielded results, they say.
“I think it would be great if we could meet, but at the same time, people are so worried about their jobs and about being let go,” said one retiree.
Programs like the SEE have become more important than likely envisioned when it launched in 1984, because a growing cohort of older people are finding themselves forced to keep working into their 60s and beyond, said Olivia Mitchell, a professor of business economics who specializes in labor policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“When you get over 55 and try to find a job, it isn’t retirement time in this day and age,” said one program participant who makes the maximum $18.16 an hour as an engineer. “God knows, if you get sick or have some kind of emergency, you don’t have the pensions that you had, so this is important income. It’s no longer extra money.”
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