Tensions Flare Between EPA and Union During Virus Response

March 26, 2020, 3:07 PM

Coronavirus-related tensions are fraying an already-strained relationship between the EPA’s leadership and its biggest union.

The latest sign of discord is a testy email exchange between a regional president of the EPA’s biggest union and the Chicago region’s acting human capital officer, outlined in emails obtained by Bloomberg Law. The conflict centers on how the Environmental Protection Agency was responding to the new coronavirus pandemic, and how the union is allowed to communicate with employees.

The dispute began on March 17, when Kurt Thiede, regional administrator of EPA Region 5, notified all staff that three employees had potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. Region 5 covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The next day, Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, emailed a response that went to the entire regional staff. She outlined a series of requests, including Covid-19 tests for all employees and a waiver from any requirements for supporting medical documentation in coronavirus cases. Covid-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Richard Marlinga, Region 5’s acting human capital officer, responded on March 20 that Cantello’s email was “clearly inappropriate” because it violated the new union contract. The contract bars union officers from using “agency equipment or systems,” including computers and email accounts, for union activity.

He also said EPA management was considering what other parts of the contract Cantello may have violated “and what action is appropriate.”

The AFGE is disputing the contract, which it said was imposed unilaterally last July. The agency and union had earlier committed to finish their talks by April 15.

No Disciplinary Action

A Region 5 spokeswoman said Cantello isn’t being investigated for possible disciplinary action. Had Cantello sent her message from a personal email account, she wouldn’t have violated the contract, the spokeswoman said.

Marlinga also said that many of Cantello’s demands were already being fulfilled, such as unscheduled telecommuting, unscheduled leave, waivers for medical documentation for telecommuting, and prompt notification of EPA staff who may have contacted infected workers. He didn’t respond directly to her request for agencywide testing.

Marlinga said he found Cantello’s email “divisive and through implication, false.”

Cantello disagreed.

“Requests on their own cannot be divisive or false,” Cantello told Bloomberg Law. “They’re just requests that we’re making to keep lives safe.”

In response, the board of Local 704 sent another email to Thiede—from a gmail account—reiterating the demands to do a deep cleaning of all Region 5 offices and confirm that the agency will share information about the status of EPA workers who may have been exposed to the virus.

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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