In a memo earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to step up planning for across-the-board budget cuts set to begin in March. Along the way, OMB added, agencies should involve employee unions “to the fullest extent practicable” in any decisions on hiring freezes, furloughs and other measures to cut workforce costs.
John O’Grady questions whether that message made it to the Environmental Protection Agency. O’Grady heads the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some Chicago-area EPA staff and is also treasurer for the union’s national council of EPA locals. He sees little evidence that the agency is making much effort at outreach.
“It’s maddening,” he said last week after joining in an agency conference call that, by his account, produced little of note. “People are sitting in their cubes, they’re waiting for this hammer to go down and nobody’s giving them any information.”
In the Jan. 14 memo, acting OMB chief Jeff Zients declared that agencies had already engaged in “extensive planning” for the possible cuts, formally known as sequestration. Based on documents that O’Grady shared with FedLine, EPA officials either aren’t very far along or aren’t willing to explain what’s in store for EPA’s 18,000-strong workforce.
In an extensive request for information last month, for example, O’Grady asked the agency for a list of functions nationally that could be downsized if the cuts—formally known as “sequestration”—take effect as scheduled March 1. The union also sought a list of all contracts and a rundown of any contractor-performed functions that could be transferred to federal employees in the event of sequestration.
In its reply this month, EPA declined to provide any answers. “The union’s request is overly broad, unduly burdensome and the union has failed to state a particularized need for the requested information,” wrote Mitch Berkenkemper, the agency’s director of labor and employee relations.
This could be seen as typical labor-management sparring, but the information blackout at EPA and other civilian agencies stands in sharp contrast to how the Defense Department is proceeding. In the last two weeks, the military services have outlined a host of steps–including civilian hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary employees and possible furloughs–that are under way both to prepare for sequestration and the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution.
This could be seen as prudent planning that might have the side benefit of reminding members of Congress that the cuts would have a nationwide impact. The consensus is growing, however, that lawmakers and the Obama administration will fail to reach the agreement needed to avert the reductions, at least initially.
The latest to sound that view was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I think the sequester is going to happen,” Ryan said yesterday on the NBC talk show, “Meet the Press.”
EPA is already taking some small downsizing steps. Last month, the agency offered $25,000 buyouts and early retirement for up to 29 employees in its Washington, D.C. Office of Environmental Compliance and Assurance, and another 88 for staff throughout its San Francisco-based Region 9 bailiwick.
“Region 9 sought the authorities to facilitate the restructuring of enforcement work into a single enforcement division,” Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld wrote in a Dec. 3 memo. “The retirements will help us achieve voluntary staffing reductions and create opportunities to recruit entry-level employees.”
An EPA spokeswoman referred FedLine’s emailed questions on sequestration planning last week to OMB, which did not respond to a request for comment.