An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program spends hundreds of millions of tax dollars every year to recruit and hire talented and highly-experienced senior citizens to work for cheap pay.
The agency gave nearly $321 million from 2009 to 2014 to a small group of nonprofits that administer the Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) program, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation analysis of more than 100,000 agency grants in a database compiled by Open The Books.
The program hires seniors to perform EPA work for wages of less than $13 per hour, even for highly-skilled technical positions like chemical engineers. Clerical and other less-skilled workers earn as little as $7.27 per hour.
The SEE program, created in 1984, authorizes EPA to award grants to six nonprofits to recruit “retired and unemployed Americans age 55 and over” for agency positions ranging from receptionists to engineers.
“The purpose of these agreements, among other things, is to utilize the talents of Americans age 55 and over in providing technical assistance to state, local, and federal government agencies, including EPA, for projects involving pollution prevention, abatement and control,” agency spokeswoman Melissa Harrison told TheDCNF.
“Participants benefit by being provided a meaningful opportunity to share their expertise with the EPA,” she continued. “They also receive a salary and are eligible for fully funded health insurance.”
That health insurance, however, is typically only available to seniors working at least 30 hours per week.
The non-negotiable pay ranges from $7.27 per hour to $12.72 per hour, depending on the skill level required for the work. Wages conform to local minimum wage laws when necessary. Participants are considered enrollees, rather than employees or contractors.
Enrollees can get annual raises in 50-cent increments, but that means an elderly chemical engineer must work for more than a decade to reach the maximum SEE pay rate of $18.16 per hour.
Private sector chemical engineers earn $49.80 per hour on average nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Out of SEE’s 1,111 participants, 92 percent are in the two most technical categories, while only one is in the least-skilled level, according to Harrison, who said the program gives participants “meaningful work” and the agency “critical technical assistance.”
Unlike SEE enrollees, regular EPA employees with unique skills are paid generous retention bonuses. President Barack Obama signed a February 2014 executive order that increased minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.
Enrollees “gain experience to help them move into positions outside the SEE program should they wish. SEE enrollees are not precluded from applying for federal sector or private sector positions,” Harrison said, adding that seniors who apply for SEE jobs only compete with other elderly workers for a slot in the program.
The organizations getting SEE funding account for six of the top 10 nonprofit EPA grant recipients. The program’s $321 million in grants make up around two-thirds of the nearly $480 million awarded to the 10 between 2009 and 2014, according to the DCNF analysis.
“The amount of funding awarded for the SEE Program reflects the outstanding results obtained from SEE Program cooperative agreements and the needs of EPA Program Offices and state governments for critical technical assistance to help protect human health and environment,” Harrison said. “The administrative costs of the non-profit organizations that receive the cooperative agreements is limited to 15% of the funds that they receive under the cooperative agreements.”
But Open The Books Founder Adam Andrzejewski questioned the value of the program.
“For years, the nonprofit sector has taken advantage of EPA’s largesse,” Andrzejewski told TheDCNF. “It seems the EPA works very hard to find new ways to spend taxpayer money except where it is needed most – to safeguard the health and well-being of children and families in places like Flint, Michigan and elsewhere.”
Andrzejewski authored a September 2015 Open The Books oversight report on EPA that highlighted SEE, noting that one of the six nonprofits – the National Council on the Aging, Inc. (NCOA) – received $2.6 million from EPA for SEE in 2014 and in excess of $40 million from all government sources. The NCOA’s total budget is approximately $47 million annually.
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