EPA bargaining proposal makes it easier to fire staff, rolls back telework, official time

The Environmental Protection Agency has introduced a collective bargaining proposal that would reduce telework to one day a week, reduce time spent on official time, remove union offices from EPA buildings and make it easier to remove agency employees.

The terms of the new contract, which the EPA introduced without approval from the American Federation of Government Employees Local 238, which represents more than EPA 8,000 employees, closely resemble provisions that other agencies, over the past year, have proposed amid pushback and legal battles from federal employee unions.

Under the terms of the previous telework agreement, which had been in effect between 1998 and 2010, eligible EPA employees were permitted to take up to two days of telework a week. Agency officials expect the terms of the new contract to go into effect on July 8.

The new Master Collective Bargaining Agreement would roll back union protection for employees who are fired, laid off or face disciplinary action.

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Under the new proposal, EPA employees faced with firing, furlough lasting longer than 30 days, suspension lasting longer than two weeks, or a reduction in pay or grade would have the right to respond to written notice from management, and would retain to the right to have an attorney represent them.

A senior EPA career official told Federal News Network that the agency reached out to AFGE Local 238 in May 2018 about wanting to reopen the entire contract to negotiations. The existing contract had last been updated in 2007.

“I think what we’re looking at is reasonable. [It’s] what’s effective, what’s efficient,” the official said in a call Wednesday.

Earlier this month, both EPA and AFGE came back to the negotiation table in an attempt to find common ground, but on June 17, AFGE filed a grievance urging the agency to “cease and desist all action attempting to re-open articles not previously agreed to.”

“Considering everything that’s happened and the nine years of delay tactics, we provided the union with a new contract earlier in the week,” the EPA official said. “We’ve tried many times to negotiate in good faith. We continue to be willing to negotiate in good faith.”

AFGE filed an unfair labor practice with the Federal Labor Relations Authority on Wednesday to prevent the labor contract from taking effect.

“The Trump administration has shown an outrageous pattern of trampling on federal employees’ rights and ignoring the law to dismantle decades of prior agreements between our union and previous administrations,” AFGE National President J. David Cox said in a statement.

EPA Senior Labor Attorney Robert Coomber, in a June 24 email to agency and AFGE officials, said the agency had unsuccessfully attempted to bring AFGE to the bargaining table to negotiate a new Master Collective Bargaining Agreement for more than a year. But AFGE Local 238 officials disagreed with the scope of the negotiations, adding that the agency wanted “to increase the number of articles to be reopened” for discussion.

Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and a former EPA enforcement attorney, said the proposal reflects unilateral collective bargain proposals introduced at other agencies in which “there is no bargaining, only ultimatums.”

“Under these rules, important safeguards against political purges within the civil service would be removed,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

The EPA official said language about removing union offices from agency buildings stems in part from Congress passing the 2016 Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which tasks agencies with taking a closer look consolidating office space. The Public Buildings Reform Board, which was stood up under FASTA, held is first meeting this month.

The new contract also includes more flexible work schedules that, for example, would allow agency employees to work four 10-hours, rather than five eight-hour days.

“There’s other flexibilities in there that they’ve never had before … there’s some certain core hours that you have to come in, but if your kid has a baseball game, you can decide to not take leave, come in early, leave early and get to the baseball game,” the EPA official said.

The contention between the EPA and AFGE resemble similar conflicts with contested labor proposals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and terms that a federal arbitrator has allowed to move forward at the Health and Human Service’s Department and the Social Security Administration.

In April, the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP), a Federal Labor Relations Authority board with seven presidentially appointed members, upheld most of the Health and Human Service’s Department proposed changes to its collective bargaining agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union. The panel also rewrote the terms of about a dozen labor contract proposals between the Social Security Administration and AFGE.

“The administration is hijacking the collective bargaining process to enforce illegal provisions that will make it harder for EPA employees to do their jobs,” AFGE Council 238 President Gary Morton said. “We are going to do everything we can to fight this injustice and defend EPA employees from these baseless attacks on their rights and jobs.”

These labor disputes stem from several key provisions in three executive orders President Donald Trump signed in May. A federal district judge invalidated nine key provisions in those executive orders, but agencies have continued to introduce proposals that would restrict telework and collective bargaining hours, as well as union use of agency office space.

“The agency’s always willing to bargain in good faith, and the ball right now is in AFGE’s court,” the EPA official said.

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