‘Decolonization’ Group Alleges Racial Bias at EPA Field Office

Aug. 31, 2020, 9:30 AM

The EPA’s biggest employee union says agency leaders have rebuffed requests to meet with a “decolonization committee” it formed to address what it contends is longstanding racial bias in the regulator’s Chicago office.

James Hewitt, an EPA spokesman, confirmed that Region 5 management hasn’t met with the Racial Justice and Decolonization Committee, a working group of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704.

There was a preliminary phone conversation in which the union laid out several conditions for a formal meeting that the agency couldn’t or wouldn’t meet, Hewitt said. Those included stipulations about which EPA officials would attend.

Further, Hewitt said Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 and president of the union local, indicated that unless management was “willing to admit that the region, the EPA, and the country were bathed in white supremacy, then they were too far apart to meet.”

Cantello denied the committee wanted an admission of culpability as a condition of meeting. But she did confirm the group wants the Region 5 administrator in the meetings. “It makes no sense to meet with non-decision makers,” Cantello said.

Loreen Targos, a Local 704 steward and EPA employee in Chicago, said the May killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the nationwide protests that ensued, were catalysts for forming the committee in June. The committee is also drawing fuel from the protests in nearby Kenosha, Wis., over the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, according to Targos, who co-founded the decolonization committee.

The committee recently drafted a mission statement, which says it will “work to eliminate institutional structures that allow Black, indigenous, and person of color workers to continue to be marginalized by workplace discrimination year after year.”

Longstanding Racism Allegations

As of July 1, 2,440 Black employees worked at the EPA, representing 18% of the workforce, according to Hewitt. Among supervisors, 254 were Black, or 14%. Both those figures are higher than the percentage of Black people in the nation, which stood at 13.4% in July, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nevertheless, some Region 5 employees say the office has long been plagued by racist microaggressions, and biased hiring and promotion practices.

Felicia Chase, a Black EPA scientist in Region 5, said there have been wide hiring disparities there between Black and White employees across the board. The region has done little recruitment of people of color, and provided few promotions for them, said Chase, another co-founder of the decolonization committee.

In one instance, Chase said she was required to watch a training video in 2018 that showed wastewater treatment plant workers, all white, rapping in a way that she considered to be mocking Black culture. She later raised formal complaints with the agency.

“I feel like it’s a hostile work environment, based on complaints I get,” Cantello said, referring to her role as Local 704 president. “I don’t get nearly that amount of complaints from White employees. I feel the pervasive fear and pervasive struggle from people of color members, overwhelmingly.”

“It’s been festering for a long time,” Targos said.

Many of the charges predate the Trump administration, according to Chase.

The EPA earlier this month lost an attempt to throw out a federal lawsuit filed in California by a Black employee alleging discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said the employee plausibly alleged a pattern of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct.

EPA Responds

Region 5 investigated Chase’s allegations about the video in 2018 and found that, although Chase was offended, “the allegation of [a] hostile work environment and/or discrimination was not supported by the evidence,” Hewitt said.

The investigation found the video, which had been produced by a local sewer district, “was related to the agency’s work and contained no harassing or discriminatory content,” Hewitt said. “Further, there was no negative intent in showing the video.”

Hewitt also said Region 5 is now working on “a deep dive” into demographic information to help identify barriers to equal employment opportunity and address any issues that come up. The data doesn’t support Chase’s allegations about disproportionate hiring, he said, adding that Region 5 “continues to recruit broadly.”

The agency recently expanded its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, whose role is to provide recommendations to the EPA’s Human Resources Council on these issues, according to Hewitt.

Listening Sessions, Required Training

Hewitt also said that, after the killing of George Floyd, the EPA has held listening sessions “to provide EPA leadership an opportunity to hear the concerns of staff.” Information gleaned from the listening sessions “will inform broader efforts to address [equal employment opportunity] and diversity and inclusion strategies,” he said.

The agency has also conducted training on equal employment opportunity and diversity and inclusion in most of its programs and regions. The training sessions have addressed topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, and disability awareness, according to Hewitt.

Each EPA employee is required to complete online training under the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act (No FEAR) this fiscal year. That law requires employees to be notified of their rights under antidiscrimination and whistleblower laws, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Additional training will continue to be offered “as part of EPA’s overall goal to enhance its diversity and inclusion efforts,” Hewitt said.

Cantello acknowledged the training, and praised the quality of the speakers and materials.

“But what we’re waiting for is, what changes are they going to make?” she said. “We want more promotions that benefit people of color. We want change that really makes a difference in the lives of people that are working at the agency. The training was great, the trainer was wonderful. But it’s just window dressing when you don’t take any action.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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