Two unions representing a large swath of EPA workers say the agency is defying its own rules for reopening its offices.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently said it would transition several of its offices on Tuesday into the second stage of President Donald Trump’s three-phased reopening plan, including its Washington, D.C., headquarters. That means opening offices while continuing to encourage teleworking and closing common areas or enforcing moderate social distancing protocols.
But at the time the decision was made, the EPA’s internal website showed that the Washington region didn’t meet the “gating” criteria set forth in the agency’s own guidelines, according to leadership at both the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union.
The unions say the website showed that the 14-day trend of new cases was rising, and the 14-day trend of documented positive tests wasn’t trending down in the Washington region. Both unions independently shared screenshots of the website with Bloomberg Law that appeared to confirm their allegations.
Earlier, the EPA had said downward trends in both those metrics would be among the gating criteria for reopening offices, according to the unions.
‘Not Rushing Through This’
Doug Benevento, the EPA’s associate deputy administrator, told Bloomberg Law that the dashboard is only one factor in the agency’s decision-making process. Recommendations from state and local public health agencies also play an important role, he said.
Washington, D.C.'s government entered Phase 2 on June 22. Neighboring regions have made the same decision, with Northern Virginia moving into Phase 2 on June 12 and Montgomery County, Md., following suit on June 19.
“We look at the dashboard, we do see that there are some positive trends, and then we look at the guidance that’s been put out by state and local public health agencies,” Benevento said. “We felt comfortable moving to Phase 2, with the understanding that employees still, at their option, have the ability to telework.”
Further, the EPA’s Washington offices have been in Phase 1 for 41 days, according to Benevento.
“So we’re certainly not rushing through this process,” he said. “A rush wouldn’t look like being in Phase 1 for 41 days.”
In a Friday internal email, obtained by Bloomberg Law, agency chief Andrew Wheeler wrote that the agency has “seen some progress in the 14-day trend data and other information we’ve reviewed.”
The affected offices moving to Phase 2 of a three-stage reopening plan also include Region 1, which is headquartered in Boston. Several other offices are also moving into Phases 1 and 2 across the country, according to Wheeler’s email.
Employees ‘Freaking Out’
But the EPA unions said the dashboard nevertheless paints a grim picture.
While it doesn’t present a complete picture of the coronavirus’ impact across the nation, “even the bits of data provided show clearly that this is not the time to re-open the facilities,” AFGE Council 238 said in a statement.
Similarly, Nate James, president of AFGE Local 3331, said, “The statistical facts obviously are being ignored.”
“The senseless rush to reopening EPA is akin to playing Russian roulette with employee lives—Phases 1, 2, and 3 each representing a round to be placed in the cylinder,” James said. “As employees are forced into each phase, their situation becomes increasingly grave.”
“Employees have been freaking out all day, calling us and the AFGE reps, but management has been just steamrolling us at every turn,” Andrea Medici, an EPA attorney and chief steward of NTEU Chapter 280, said Friday, when the Phase 2 plan was announced to employees.
“Even supervisors are freaking out, but they don’t have any union to support them, and no one seems willing to tell the administrator he is wrong about anything,” Medici said.
Benevento said that, although the agency has been effective while staff is working from home, some of the work, such as laboratory work and inspections, can’t be done from home.
“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority. That will drive our decision making, but we are also an agency that isn’t designed for 100% telework,” he said. “While we’ve done a good job of it, we are an agency that is designed to have interaction with each other.”