‘Collective exhale’: Will Trump’s loss stem EPA retirements?

Among EPA career staff, there have been some smiles, excited phone calls and text messages, and even dancing, according to E&E News.

EPA employees say they are relieved after President Trump’s loss in the 2020 race for the White House. His administration has targeted the agency for deep budget cuts, offered buyouts to the agency’s staff, imposed a tough contract on its largest employee union and rolled back a number of environmental rules that took years of work to craft.

Now those four difficult years are coming to a close after the presidential race was called for President-elect Joe Biden on Saturday.

On the campaign trail, Biden celebrated science and pledged to combat climate change. EPA employees believe the incoming administration will be supportive of and less punitive toward the agency.

“Well, there was dancing in the home offices on Saturday morning!” Nicole Cantello, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, joked to E&E News. “We have never looked back, only forward — and it has been four long years of fighting.”

After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, there was anxiety and tears among EPA’s workforce. They were worried about a candidate who promised to pull back regulations and break up the agency.

Now, with the president’s defeat, there is joy and happiness, but most of all relief, EPA staff told E&E News.

“I think folks would be overjoyed if we weren’t so exhausted from anxiety. So in general the prevailing sentiment is relief,” said one EPA employee. “There is a very real and consistent collective exhale amongst staff.”

“We lost so much in the last four years: personnel, regulatory, scientific standing. I’m just relieved to get back on the right track,” said another EPA staffer. “Overall theme is relief.”

“Federal employees have suffered under the Trump administration. The election of Joe Biden signals a stop to the attacks on federal employees and the protections provided for them,” said Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Local 3631, which represents EPA Region 3 employees.

Celebrations over Trump’s loss are not being held in EPA offices. EPA employees have been teleworking since March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States. Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced plans in May to reopen the agency in a phased approach, but staff are still encouraged to work from home, although they may choose to come to the office.

An EPA employee told E&E News that “people past and present are thrilled” and they’re “elated,” but those feelings will not be shared in the office due to the virus. They are also worried about supervisors finding sentiments about the election in their communications.

“People are going to call. They’re not going to put it in an email,” said the employee. “We’re not talking in the hall. You’re going to have to pick up the phone.”

The president’s election loss could also change EPA employees’ plans. Several may now stay at the agency since they will not have to contend with a second Trump term.

“The pace of retirements has slowed from what I can see. A lot of people were planning to bail” if Trump was reelected, said an EPA employee.

“They were reserving judgment until the voters had their say.”

EPA staff are waiting for the transition for the incoming administration to rev up.

The day after the 2016 election, then-Administrator Gina McCarthy told employees in an email her goal was “a seamless transition.” The race had been called for Trump already, but his transition team didn’t arrive at EPA until about a month later.

Trump has disputed this year’s election results. The head of the General Services Administration has not ascertained an “apparent” winner, which means federal funds cannot be released nor access to agencies given to Biden’s transition team.

EPA employees said they have not received a message similar to McCarthy’s from Wheeler yet. EPA spokesman James Hewitt referred E&E News to GSA.

“There are no updates at this time and GSA’s position remains the same,” a GSA spokeswoman told E&E News. “An ascertainment has not yet been made. GSA and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000.”

One EPA employee said there was still some angst among staff about what Trump political appointees at the agency may try during the coming months.

“There is still some lingering anxiety over what they will get up to over the next couple of months. They definitely are not operating this morning from a place of finishing up work and handing over to the transition,” said the employee.