Nearly half of EPA watchdog’s buyouts issued to ineligible employees

Before the Environmental Protection Agency reduces its workforce by potentially more than 1,000 employees, the agency watchdog said it missed the mark on some of the goals of a much smaller early retirement and buyout campaign.

The EPA Office of Inspector General said it reduced the overall size of its department by 39 full-time-equivalent positions through the Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) it was granted in fiscal 2014,  but failed to meet its workforce restructuring targets.

“VERA-VSIP authority helped the OIG achieve its goal to reduce its workforce to 300 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. However, the OIG did not achieve its goals to increase the team lead/supervisor-to-staff ratio … to reduce surplus positions, or to obtain staff with new skills,” the EPA OIG said in an Aug. 14 report.

Citing “weak management controls,” the EPA OIG found it awarded 11 of its 23 VSIP buyouts to employees in positions not targeted for reduction, according to the plan approved by the Office of Personnel Management. The EPA’s watchdog estimates that it spent $347,000 on buyouts for employees who worked as auditors, lead program analysts, information technology specialists and administrative staff. The cost of the buyouts includes payment for employees’ unused annual leave.

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“These 11 buyouts occurred because the OIG’s Office of the Chief of Staff had weak controls for verifying that staff who were offered and accepted buyouts occupied positions in the OPM-approved plan,” the report said.

Following the 23 buyouts, the EPA inspector general’s office said it didn’t remove those positions from its workforce profile, and may have hired as many as five new staff members in roles that should have been left permanently unfilled.

“The purpose of these voluntary attrition programs is to realign the workforce to meet changing mission requirements and move toward new models of work by enabling agencies to restructure or eliminate positions after they are vacated,” the OIG report said.

One of the 11 improper buyouts was awarded to a GS-11 administrative officer whom the OIG attempted to transfer to a buyout-eligible GS-8 secretary job in a different city.

“Although this effort did not result in an official change of position, the GS-11 administrative officer was provided a $25,000 buyout, one of the 11 buyouts granted to employees in positions not listed in the OIG’s VERA-VSIP plan,” the report said.

When asked about the improper buyouts, the former OIG director of human resources told officials that “he supervised the effort but could not explain why the 11 ineligible staff members had been approved for a buyout.” Officials also contacted the former OIG chief of staff; the report states she declined to comment.

“Managers from the Office of Program Evaluation and the Office of Audit reported that they either did not have control over the restructuring plan or did not see the final restructuring plan that the Office of the Chief of Staff submitted to OPM. As a result, the planned restructuring may never occur because the actual staffing needs of the organization may not match the approved plan,” the report said.

The EPA OIG report could serve as a valuable case study for the agency at-large, which submitted a VERA-VSIP proposal to OPM in June that would allow the agency to reduce its workforce by as many as 1,228 employees, according to American Federation of Government Employees, which represents EPA workers.

According to the EPA’s VERA/VSIP request, the agency expects 405 workers will be “involuntarily separated, downgraded, transferred or reassigned.” Of the 3,654 employees that are eligible for voluntary early retirement, the agency expects 195 employees will take that offer. The EPA has a workforce of 14,524 permanent employees.

The last effective date for EPA employees to leave the agency is slated for Sept. 2.