Union pushes back on EPA reopening plans

As one agency tussles with employees on reopening, experts told Congress that telework and hybrid approaches will likely be a reality for months to come.

EPA headquarters sign on building

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing ahead with plans to reopen its Washington, D.C. headquarters office despite broad opposition from its biggest union.

Nicole Peterson, the EPA's Acting HR Director for the Division of Labor and Employee Relations, told leaders from the American Federation of Government Employees that the agency would continue to reopen facilities despite the union's claims that the agency had not adequately engaged with their concerns around the EPA's returning workplace plans and criteria for reopening in phases.

In a June 24 letter to AFGE general counsel Cathie McQuiston and Council 238 President Gary Morton, Peterson accused the union of making "false accusations towards EPA leadership and management… that negatively affected employee morale and led to a loss in productivity."

She also said that AFGE national leadership had failed to communicate internally with its local Council 238 leadership, which "stoked fear in employees about returning to the workplace."

AFGE Council 238 represents 8,000 EPA workers nationwide.

Peterson touted EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's "extensive, transparent, data-driven, measured and deliberate approach to returning to agency offices and facilities that ensures our employees' health and safety."

On June 8, Morton had sent EPA Administrator a letter asking for a moratorium on reopening any regional offices.

Since that time, new COVID-19 cases have spiked dangerously in many parts of the U.S., with almost 37,000 new cases reported June 24 – a 47% spike over two weeks previous. The new cases are hitting after many states have curtailed precautions on business openings, gatherings, public events and entertainment.

EPA spokesperson James Hewitt told FCW that EPA political appointees returned to the Washington, D.C. office on June 23, but that other employees were encouraged to continue teleworking.

In response to Peterson’s letter, AFGE's national office dismissed her claims that the union had been adequately updated as to the agency’s plans for reopening.

"The best lies have a grain of truth to them. While it is true that EPA has given us notice and is apparently planning to bargain with us, what is also true is that they have moved ahead without completing those negotiations—rushing to reopen offices with little regard to the health and safety of employees," the union said in a statement.

"EPA is enforcing its plans for reopening worksites without satisfying its legal obligations to negotiate the impact of those changes with AFGE," the statement read. "The COVID-19 pandemic does not allow EPA or any other agency to circumvent their bargaining obligations, and we intend to hold this administration accountable for failing to work with us to ensure the safety of the employees we represent and the public we serve."

Telework success

On Capitol Hill, government employees and some lawmakers are hoping to make the operational changes that COVID-19 necessitated for government agencies last beyond the pandemic.

The Government Accountability Office's Managing Director for Strategic Issues, J. Christopher Mihm, said that his office had found the transition to remote work "seamless" with little to no disruption in its daily routine.

"From an operational and technological standpoint, it's certainly been normal, and if anything, [agency operations] have gotten a little bit better [under telework]," Mihm told the House Government Operations subcommittee during a June 25 hearing.

Chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) noted that while public-facing agencies such as the IRS and Social Security Administration had had to shutter offices, "it's a good time to remember that our government never shut down once during this pandemic."

While outdated technology has presented a challenge for some agencies, guaranteeing their members' ability to telework has been a key issue for many unions since before and especially during the pandemic.

In a supporting statement to the committee, the Partnership for Public Service's President Max Stier urged department heads to consider making certain measures that the pandemic mandated, such as teleworking and accelerated hiring processes, permanent in order to address longstanding workforce issues such as mass vacancies and slow hiring timelines.

The Partnership developed its own checklist for agencies to reference as departments have begun considering the prospect of slowly returning workers to the office and in-person work.

"The rapid shift to remote working, overall, appears to have been a resounding success, with many agencies reporting improvements to productivity and services while operating under maximum telework," he wrote. "The experience during the pandemic has shown us that a remote workforce can be a productive workforce, and that agencies should use the flexibility of telework as a selling point in recruiting and retaining top talent across the country."