The head of a major EPA staff union is attacking President Donald Trump's bid to freeze pay levels for federal employees as a fresh blow to morale for an agency whose staff is already opposed to its current deregulatory agenda, saying it will exacerbate an employee “exodus” that started when EPA pursued major regulatory rollbacks.
In an exclusive interview with Inside EPA, Mike Mikulka, president of the Association of Federal Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704, called the plan to cancel this year's annual raises for federal staff “disheartening” for EPA's workforce. Mikulka and other union sources have said the workforce is already demoralized by the current administration's push to roll back many high-profile Obama-era rulemakings.
“The objective of everything EPA does should be to protect human health and the environment. If we're not doing that, you have to question why,” he said.
Mikulka pointed in particular to the recently-announced freeze of Obama-era vehicle emission standards, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) power plant greenhouse gas rule, and the agency's recent announcement that it will reconsider whether the 2011 mercury and air toxics standards for power plants are “appropriate and necessary” under the Clean Air Act.
“These are other reasons the staff at EPA are befuddled and demoralized,” he said of the rollbacks. Those morale issues, he said, “could be responsible for the exodus from EPA,” and will only get worse if salaries stagnate for the remaining staff.
Mikulka said the pay freeze, which Trump announced in an Aug. 30 letter to Congress, could face a court challenge from AFGE or other unions if the administration stands behind it.
“My take on that is that the president has done illegal things before and the courts have struck them down. Hopefully we'll find a way to argue that's illegal and we can do it again, but I don't know that that's the case,” he said.
Mikulka -- who works at EPA Region 5 -- said the current staff “exodus” has come in the form of over 100 early retirements, buyouts and other departures from that office, with similar numbers elsewhere. According to figures from the Washington Post, the agency's workforce has shrunk by about 1,200 employees, or 8 percent, since Trump took office.
“There's all the reasons the administration has given people to resign or retire. . . . A good percentage of EPA's workforce is eligible for retirement, so we do have that group of people who are eligible to retire and could retire -- so you could wake up in the morning and say 'I'm fed up,'” he said.
He noted that while about 25 percent of EPA staff are eligible for retirement, not all the departures have been by retirees. Mikulka said that in some cases, staffers who were hired to fill posts left empty by retirement have opted to quit rather than work under the Trump administration over the long term.
“They'll say, 'I came here to protect human health and the environment, they're not letting me do that, so I'm going back to school. Maybe I'll come back after a change in administration.'”
Mikulka continued that with EPA's staff shrinking, one effort that might aid the remaining employees is the recently announced analysis of the agency's workforce needs, which seems to answer a long-standing call by EPA's own Office of Inspector General and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, both of which have said the review is long overdue.
But a full review of the responsibilities and staffing requirements at each EPA office could take too long to drive any new hiring or reallocation of resources during the current presidential term, he said. And the new move to reorganize regional offices -- which another EPA source called a “mega-distraction” -- could further delay it.
“I hesitate to say it's a welcome thing, if only because I think to do it right is going to take some time,” he said, adding that Trump EPA leaders have had a pattern of promising reports on agency operations with unreasonably fast timelines. “You can't have a report done in 90 days. . . . They need to do this in a way that's going to be meaningful."
Mikulka said that it will be difficult to conduct a full breakdown of how EPA staff spend their workday because most employees do not record their work schedule in enough detail to provide the necessary raw data.
“You could probably do it in Superfund right now because everyone accounts for their time,” due to Superfund work being billed on an hourly rate to the responsible parties for each contaminated site, he said. However, other EPA programs do not require staff to make the same accounting. “[H]ow long it actually takes you to do stuff is difficult to ascertain, perhaps. Unless they come up with a different workload accounting system, it's going to be difficult."
He also said that while Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler has told staff a workforce analysis is coming, the schedule seems to depend on the selection of a new head of the Office of Administration and Resource Management (OARM), which has been run by Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Donna Vizian, a career official, since early 2016. Trump has yet to name a nominee to be the assistant administrator for OARM.
The outcome of that analysis could also potentially impact employee morale. AFGE Local 704 Chief Steward Nicole Cantell, in a July interview with Inside EPA, had suggested agency morale is on a cautious “uptick” after former Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned following a series of ethics scandals. At the time, she welcomed Wheeler's lack of ethics scandals and his push for transparency measures but warning that rule rollbacks could still hurt overall morale -- the same warning that Mikulka is now warning could worsen with Trump's pay freeze.
Turning to the AFGE's relationship with EPA, Mikulka touted the union's recent court win where Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, struck down many provisions from a trio of May 25 executive orders where Trump sought to set strict new limits on “official time” spent on union activities during the workday while barring agency negotiators from making concessions on issues like grievance arbitration.
But he said the union is now scrambling to undo steps the agency took based on the orders before Jackson handed down her decision, such as refusing to pay wages and travel expenses for official time.
“They have enforced the executive orders on official time for us already, and we're going to have to get that turned around now,” he said. For instance, he continued, the union is pursuing a formal grievance over employees who were denied time off to attend a union training conference, and used personal time instead.
And he said that since Jackson let stand parts of the orders related to employee discipline -- which is exempt from the “good-faith” collective bargaining mandate of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act -- AFGE is now expecting agency leadership to invoke those provisions to achieve the orders' overall goals.
For instance, he said, “now we're worried that the agencies may go after frivolous cases related to official time abuse” in order to limit its use. -- David LaRoss (firstname.lastname@example.org)