The EPA has told its biggest union that accusations about the agency’s return-to-work plans are hurting productivity and employee morale.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the American Federation of Government Employees is the latest development in simmering tensions between the agency and its unionized staff.
In a Wednesday letter to AFGE leadership, Nicole M. Patterson, acting director of the agency’s Labor and Employee Relations Division, told the AFGE that one of its locals has been making “completely untrue” claims about the agency’s alleged failure to discuss with workers its plans to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
Those misrepresentations “are stoking fear in employees about returning to the workplace,” Patterson wrote to AFGE Council 238 President Gary Morton and AFGE Deputy General Counsel Cathie McQuiston.
‘Failure to Communicate’
Patterson also said AFGE’s allegations about the EPA’s poor communication “ironically stem from AFGE’s own failure to communicate within their union.”
The EPA is in the early stages of reopening several of its offices across the nation after virus-linked closures. That includes the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, which reopened on June 23.
No employees are required to return to the office yet, Donna Vizian, the EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Mission Support, wrote in an internal email last week obtained by Bloomberg Law.
EPA staffers are encouraged to keep telecommuting until an office reaches the third and final phase of the White House’s reopening plan, Doug Benevento, the EPA’s associate deputy administrator, recently said in an interview.
The union asked the agency last July to direct all communications to its national general counsel’s office, rather than to local guilds, Patterson wrote. Over the last 11 months, “few matters” have been delegated by the AFGE national office to the locals, she said.
Many of the complaints to the EPA about its reopening plans have been submitted by AFGE Council 238, which represents more than 9,000 EPA workers across the nation.
“It is baffling that local AFGE representatives are suggesting management should bypass AFGE’s designated representative and internal communication process,” Patterson wrote. “Instead of publicly accusing the agency of not being transparent with the union, we strongly urge AFGE to focus on improving its communications among representatives.”
The union has consistently raised concerns about the reopening plans since the nationwide self-quarantine took hold. In May, the AFGE told Wheeler that the union hasn’t been invited to participate in the reopening talks, and that no data exists to suggest it’s safe to reopen.
Dispute Over Transparency
But, according to Patterson, the agency also has held seven briefings with AFGE and other EPA unions to talk about the agency’s status and plans for reopening.
Moreover, the EPA formally notified the AFGE of its return-to-work plan on May 27. The agency has provided formal notice to the union of local reopening plans, honored the union’s request for a briefing on June 17, and is now scheduling further talks with the AFGE’s designated chief negotiator, according to Patterson.
Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 in Chicago and president of AFGE Local 704, said the EPA’s briefings to the union “were perfunctory and full of non-information that was unhelpful to the union.”
“The best lies have a grain of truth to them,” the AFGE said in a statement. “While it is true that EPA has given us notice and is apparently planning to bargain with us, what is also true is that they have moved ahead without completing those negotiations—rushing to reopen offices with little regard to the health and safety of employees.”
Agency briefings aren’t the same as formal negotiations, and the EPA is enforcing plans to reopen worksites without satisfying its legal obligations to negotiate the impact of those changes with the AFGE, the union said.
“Our claims are not false. We have and will continue to pursue litigation against the agency in every instance in which they violate the law,” the union said.
The AFGE didn’t respond to questions about the allegations of internal miscommunication within the union.
Policy and Protocol
The AFGE said the bathroom protocol that requires an employee to place a sticky note with his or her name on the door wasn’t negotiated. Neither was a policy that limits elevator occupancy to two employees at a time, requiring workers to wait in line or gather in groups to enter or leave their offices.
The EPA didn’t immediately respond to questions about those specific policies.
Patterson said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler “has repeatedly communicated an extensive, transparent, data-driven, measured, and deliberate approach to returning to agency offices and facilities that ensures our employees’ health and safety.”
On June 12, the EPA rolled out a new online software tool to staff that shares the data that guides the agency’s reopenings. The AFGE had earlier called on EPA leadership to disclose the data.
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