EPA tells Las Vegas employees to relocate, retire or resign

More than 50 Environmental Protection Agency employees based in Las Vegas, Nevada, will soon face the decision of relocating across the country, retiring or resigning.

The EPA announced Tuesday the Office of Research and Development would end operations in Las Vegas by Sept. 30, which would affect 34 employees. The agency told affected employees they must transfer to offices in Cincinnati, Ohio, or in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park by this summer.

This week’s announcement expands on an earlier decision to close the Las Vegas branch of the National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL), which is part of ORD. That earlier decision affects 22 NERL employees.

Tim Watkins, the director of the National Exposure Research Laboratory, met with affected staff in Las Vegas on Tuesday to explain the decision.

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“The drivers behind the decision are the continued pressure to reduce the amount of federally leased space by consolidating operations into federally owned space and to reduce our overall operational costs moving forward,” Watkins said in an email obtained by Federal News Radio. “As I mentioned in my discussion with our staff earlier today, announcing this decision was extremely difficult, but our colleagues in Las Vegas are now faced with an even more difficult set of decisions from both a personal and professional perspective.”

Ann Pitchford, an EPA research physical scientist based at the NERL in Las Vegas, told Federal News Radio that 17 human resources personnel within the Office of Administration and Resources Management (OARM) would also be affected by the closure.

“The language of the letter that we will each receive says that we have a choice of relocating, retiring or resigning,” Pitchford said Thursday.

Pitchford said nine agency chemists have already received relocation letters, and she expects the remaining employees will receive their letters from the EPA in March.

For employees unwilling to relocate, Pitchford said Watkins told employees that the EPA is looking to obtain authorization for Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIPs) and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA). The maximum buyout under VERA/VSIP is $25,000.

“Compared to what it means for people to be able to continue working and accrue their full retirement, versus $25,000, it’s not really a good deal,” Pitchford said.

Twenty-eight contractors, she said, would also be laid off due to the closures. Those contractors maintain computer systems, provide graphic support, maintain ORD’s leased office space and staff the shipping and receiving functions of the office’s warehouse.

Pitchford said many affected employees have two-to-five years before reaching full retirement age, and weren’t looking to relocate this late in their careers.

“That means that they will move, perhaps, without their family, and that’s asking a big personal sacrifice of the family members to be basically on their own, so their loved ones can go off and finish their careers,” she said.

Pitchford, who is also affected by the closure of the Las Vegas facilities, said she didn’t plan to retire until about 2020, but will relocate if necessary. However, she said she is waiting to find out whether the EPA would allow affected employees to telework instead of relocate.

“I’m hopeful that we can work out the telework option so it’s not such a hardship on my family,” Pitchford said.

In 2010, President Barack Obama sent a memo to federal agencies ordering the reduction of federally leased office space. All of the facilities the EPA is closing are commercially leased or owned by the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

That being said, Pitchford said she’s unsure if the relocation decision doesn’t also reflect President Donald Trump’s reorganization plans for the agency.

“The real issue is, are they trying to get rid of the employees by forcing them to move? Most of these employees have lived Las Vegas and in the West their whole lives, so asking them to uproot families, especially this quickly, is very challenging.”

Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, confirmed that the EPA is closing ORD facilities in Las Vegas.

“EPA is consolidating services into EPA-owned buildings in Cincinnati, Ohio and Research Triangle Park, NC.  This decision will save taxpayer dollars and streamline layers.  EPA staff will be given the opportunity to relocate to an EPA-owned facility by the summer of 2018,” Bowman said.

The EPA says it will pay for relocation costs.

Last week, the EPA also announced it’s merging OARM and the Office of Environmental Information (OEI),  which manages the EPA computers and data, including its Toxic Release Inventory, an annual report of the toxic chemicals released by industry.