The success of the EPA’s teleworking experience during the coronavirus pandemic is helping the union’s push for broader telecommuting rights for employees.
Most of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 14,000 employees are working from home after the agency largely closed its offices nationwide on March 16. Employees say glitches have been minimal and that they’ve been able to get their work done with few problems.
The American Federation of Government Employees is pointing to the achievement as a good reason why the administration should restore employees’ remote work options to two days a week, rather than one, in ongoing contract talks.
“The transition has been seamless,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 and president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago. “We were on expanded telework prior to the [new contract] and the agency’s mission was always accomplished.”
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is in active negotiations with all of its unions on a range of issues, including telecommuting, and will “continue to negotiate in good faith with its union partners.” She said the agency “understands that telework is an important part of our ability to get business done.”
The agency has previously said it needs veteran workers to spend more time in the office to help mentor younger employees.
The AFGE and EPA had earlier committed to concluding contract negotiations by April 15. One staffer, based at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, said the argument for expanding telecommunting is strong.
“Tell us again why we can’t telework? Because we’re keeping the agency open,” said the staffer, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely.
Having 14,000 employees work from home hasn’t been without its problems, however.
Several EPA employees said they’ve experienced isolated telecommuting problems, such as a slowdown in the agency’s virtual private network, likely due to bandwidth overload.
Some employees have been blocked from accessing the agency’s network, which houses contracts, databases, training modules, and human resource functions such as time sheets, according to the headquarters staffer.
“We’re used to a lot of telework, but not 14,000 employees,” the employee said. “It’s not a network that’s set up, bandwidth-wise, for everybody to be working simultaneously.”
The EPA spokeswoman said the agency had fixed the problems by the middle of last week, in conjunction with its service provider, and that the virtual private network, or VPN, was fully functioning by March 19.
Because the VPN is built over two geographically-diverse sites, the impact was limited to a single site-associated failure, the spokeswoman said. The agency is continually monitoring the VPN’s availability and performance, she said.
The EPA Office of Mission Support said in an internal email on Monday that it’s working this week to connect all users who still can’t connect, and developing “simpler and more seamless methods” for EPA laptop connectivity.
EPA staffers say they’re still writing permits, developing proposed rules, enforcing standards, holding meetings, and sending press releases, even though nearly all agency employees are now working from home.
New Scheduling Rules
The agency has also let employees on flexible schedules work anytime between 5:00 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., according to a March 19 all-agency email from Donna Vizian, principal deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Mission Support.
Previously, staff had to be on duty during “core hours,” between 9:30 and 3:00, with flexibility to shift their hours outside of that block of time, according to a Region 8 employee.
“It’s really an impressive approach that takes into account the challenges that we’re facing during this time,” one Region 3 employee said.
Despite the work-at-home order, Vizian said in an all-agency email on Monday that 362 EPA employees went to the headquarters office the previous Thursday—including her. She urged employees who don’t need to be in the office to telework, and pledged to do so herself.
EPA employees are also pulling together to communicate online, on the phone, or in text groups, several employees said.
“I thought there were would be systems meltdowns everywhere, but I’m just glad we’re not crashing all the time,” the headquarters staffer said.