The workforce of the Environmental Protection Agency could soon shrink to the lowest level since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House - part of a push to curtail the size and scope of an agency that President Donald Trump once promised to eliminate ‘‘in almost every form.’’
The EPA employs about 14,880 people, but administration officials made clear this spring that they intended to reduce those numbers in several ways. The agency also has been under a hiring freeze. And in June, the EPA said it planned to offer buyouts and early retirement packages to more than 1,200 people by early September.
Last week, 362 employees accepted a voluntary buyout, according to one agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the figures have not been publicly announced. On Aug. 31, a dozen employees retired. Another 33 employees are retiring at the end of September, and 45 additional employees are considering retirement offers.
If all those individuals depart, EPA staffing levels would drop to 14,428. The last time the agency’s workforce fell so low was in the final year of the Reagan administration.
‘‘We’re giving long-serving, hard-working employees the opportunity to retire early,’’ EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement. ‘‘We’re reducing the size of government, protecting taxpayer dollars and staying true to our core mission of protecting the environment and American jobs.’’
Nearly 25 percent of EPA employees are eligible to retire with full benefits. Another 25 percent could retire in the next five years.
The EPA has been a main target of the Trump administration. The president’s proposed budget would slash the agency’s funding by 31 percent, cutting about 3,200 workers, obliterating funding for climate change research and Superfund cleanups and scrapping more than 50 programs. Among those are efforts aimed at improving energy efficiency, funds for infrastructure projects in Native American communities and cleanup plans for the Great Lakes.
During his second term in office, President Barack Obama initiated a round of buyouts at the agency, paying more than $11 million to 436 employees to voluntarily leave their jobs. But John O’Grady, a career EPA employee who heads a national council of EPA unions, said this spring that if the Trump administration tries to get rid of thousands of employees, as it has proposed, it would amount to ‘‘the utter destruction of the U.S. EPA.’’
‘‘If the administration were interested in realigning the U.S. EPA, it would first conduct a thorough workforce and workload analysis,’’ O’Grady said when word of the looming buyouts came this spring. ‘‘However, they will not do this because it would tell them that the agency is woefully underfunded and understaffed today. Any further cuts will absolutely cripple the agency.’’