Bloomberg Law
Oct. 5, 2020, 11:16 PMUpdated: Oct. 6, 2020, 1:36 AM

EPA Workers Tell Agency They Don’t Trust Reopening Plan (1)

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

The EPA’s biggest union told agency chief Andrew Wheeler on Monday that its members don’t believe the agency prioritizes their health and safety as it moves toward bringing workers back into the office during the coronavirus pandemic.

The “no confidence” vote from the American Federation of Government Employees Local 238, which represents roughly half of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 14,000 workers, and the National Treasury Employees Union was largely symbolic, because federal workers aren’t allowed to strike or even to threaten to strike.

Nevertheless, the vote underscores EPA workers’ strong and growing discontent with the agency’s reopening plans. Many staffers have said for months that they don’t feel safe being in the office or taking public transit, and that they’re doing a good enough job working from home that there’s no need to bring them back.

“It’s the most extreme way that we could address our disapprobation of what is happening here,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in the agency’s Midwest region and president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago.

The vote also reflects feedback from 750 employees, who were asked on Thursday via email if they supported a no confidence measure. Of those staffers, 695 said they lacked confidence in the EPA’s reopening plans.

The EPA has repeatedly said its reopening decisions will be careful, measured, and guided by scientific data and the guidance and orders of local and state officials. No agency employees are yet required to report back to the office.

The EPA hasn’t laid out any dates for the onset of Phase 3, which is when workers are expected back, and has said staffers can continue working from home for up to two months after an agency office enters the third and final phase of President Donald Trump’s three-stage reopening plan.

Last week, an EPA spokesman said the agency and AFGE have already negotiated—at the national level—a memorandum of understanding regarding Phases 1 and 2 of the EPA’s return-to-work plan. Phase 1 involves sheltering in place and minimal non-essential travel. In Phase 2, employers can bring workers back to the office in phases.

Union Chiefs Speak Out

Bethany Dreyfus, president of AFGE Local 1236 in San Francisco, said on a Monday web call that she believes the reopening plans are part of the administration’s bid to make “a political point that this virus doesn’t need to be taken seriously.”

“They don’t care if we live or die,” Edward Guster, sergeant at arms of AFGE Local 3911 in New York City, said during the web call.

Felicia Chase, an EPA scientist in Region 5 and executive vice president of Local 704, said on the call that the agency’s push to return workers to the office is “straight-up racist” because it fails to consider the disproportionate impacts of the virus on people of color who work at the EPA.

The vote results will be relayed to U.S. House and Senate leaders, Loreen Targos, a Local 704 steward and EPA employee in Chicago, said during the call.

(Revises with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Chuck McCutcheon at; Meghashyam Mali at; Tina May at