EPA Prepares to Return Staff to Work, Over Some Protests (1)

April 21, 2020, 7:54 PM; Updated: April 21, 2020, 8:40 PM

The EPA is in the midst of crafting a plan for staffers to eventually return to offices across the country, agency leaders said during an employee-only briefing on Tuesday.

The planning comes in response to a White House memo on Monday for federal agencies to prepare for a return to work in low-risk areas, once certain conditions are met.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance will lay out steps for workers to go back to the office with the “lowest risk possible,” said Doug Benevento, associate deputy administrator for the agency. The plan will be released shortly, Benevento said on the call, which was shared by an EPA employee who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

The EPA expects a phased return, and won’t require all staffers to go back to the office at the same time, Benevento said.

The plan will prioritize employees’ health and recognize the burdens on those who must care for dependents, said Lynnann Hitchens, director of EPA’s Office of Resources and Business Operations.

It will further accommodate workers at high risk of contracting the virus, said Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said older adults and people with serious underlying medical conditions, such as chronic lung disease or serious heart conditions, are in the high-risk category.

Both Hitchens and Dunn gave their remarks on the employee-only teleconference.

No firm dates for the return have been announced. The White House memo directed agencies to let employees work from home until state and local authorities begin reopening their economies.

Employees Feel Unsafe

But some employees say they don’t feel safe leaving their homes anytime soon.

“I’m scared,” one EPA staffer told Bloomberg Law. “It feels very rushed. They’re going to have us go back now? I feel like the agency is not putting enough thought into our safety. I feel like they’re rolling this out and implementing whatever the plan is without safety, data, and best practices in mind.”

Another EPA staffer flatly said he wouldn’t return to the office until he felt safe doing so.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than half of the EPA’s 14,000 workers, also criticized the White House order. In a tweet on Tuesday, the union said the administration wants “federal workers to be the sacrificial lambs of the Covid-19 crisis,” and that the orders are meant “to convince private industry it’s OK.”

Later during the call, Benevento praised EPA staffers for switching seamlessly to telecommuting. The effectiveness of employees has been “just astonishing,” particularly for an agency that has historically been “a brick and mortar operation,” he said.

To date, 28 EPA employees have tested positive for Covid-19, Hitchens said. Seven of them work in the agency’s Washington headquarters, and another in its nearby office in Alexandria, Va.

In the memo sent to the heads of federal agencies, Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote that the federal government “is actively planning to ramp back up government operations to the maximum extent possible, as local conditions warrant.”

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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