The EPA’s biggest union is pushing back against the agency’s plans to start the process that could lead to reopening some of its offices.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler told staff in an email last week that the EPA decided to take steps to soon reopen three of its 10 regional offices in Atlanta, Seattle, and Lenexa, Kansas. That decision was based on local data about coronavirus infection rates and conditions, and the agency will proceed carefully as more data is reviewed, Wheeler said.
No precise date for reopening was announced. But Wheeler said he had decided to start the process to “initiate the opening” based in part on data and the actions of states and local governments in the three regions.
But the American Federation of Government Employees, in a response letter to Wheeler, wrote that no data exists to suggest it’s safe to reopen, and that the union hasn’t been invited to participate in the reopening talks. The move is part of broader union discontent about the federal government’s policies when it comes to returning to office work.
An EPA spokeswoman denied that the unions haven’t been consulted. The agency has held seven formal briefings with its unions to discuss the reopening plans, she said, starting on March 10 and extending through May 22.
Nevertheless, Gary Morton, president of AFGE Council 238, which represents several thousand EPA employees, wrote to Wheeler that employee views haven’t been included.
“It is particularly telling that the agency refuses to share data and plans with a workforce heavy in scientific expertise,” Morton wrote in the letter.
“If there is a reopening of federal workplaces, more people will use public transit and communal work spaces, and the more the virus will spread,” Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 in Chicago and president of AFGE Local 704, wrote in a separate letter on Tuesday to Kurt Thiede, head of Region 5.
“The more the virus spreads, the more our hospitals will be overrun, and the more people will die.”
EPA Says Union Was Consulted
The EPA spokeswoman said the unions will continue to be regularly informed as the agency moves ahead with reopening plans.
“However, the administrator talks directly to the employees and does not need to speak through the unions,” she said.
The spokeswoman also said the EPA’s plan for an “eventual phased return to agency offices will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures our employees’ health and safety.”
The reopening plans have been a topic of discussion among EPA leadership since at least late April. Doug Benevento, associate deputy administrator for the agency, said during an April 21 employee-only briefing that the EPA was working on steps for workers to go back to the office with the “lowest risk possible.”
The planning followed a White House memo last month for federal agencies to prepare for a return to work in low-risk areas, once certain conditions are met.
One staffer in Chicago said almost all her coworkers take the subway or commuter rail to work, which would expose them to the virus. She also said she works in close quarters with others—all the more so since the EPA recently consolidated its Chicago office space.
The cubicles in Chicago are packed closely together and are only separated by half walls, said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Unless there’s a plan for rotating staff, there’s no way to practice social distancing,” she said. “It’s literally not possible. And I don’t know anyone’s who’s geared up and excited to return.”
Another staffer at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., who also spoke on condition of anonymity echoed concerns about maintaining social distancing in her office, especially after the agency moves 600 employees into headquarters from their current office in the Potomac Yard neighborhood of Northern Virginia.
That move had been scheduled for March, but was temporarily shelved when the coronavirus pandemic struck. The EPA hasn’t publicly announced plans for reopening its Washington headquarters.