The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is set to increase in-office work for union-covered employees starting June 13, but the union representing those workers is pushing back against the agency’s plans.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 1,400 EEOC employees, said the agency made changes to its COVID-19 safety plan without completing union negotiations.
Moving from one day up to two days per week in the office has been EEOC’s plan for bargaining unit employees since early May, but in response to the lack of negotiations, the union filed a fourth unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint on June 8 against the commission.
“While the plan states that EEOC workplaces should not be more than 25% occupied during periods of high community transmission, the agency contradicted this agreement in a message sent to employees. This unilateral change is substantially impacting working conditions, including the health and safety of the workplace, as exposure incidents are occurring in numerous offices, including those in high transmission areas,” AFGE wrote in a statement.
Rachel Shonfield, AFGE president for council 216, said in an interview with Federal News Network that 64% of the agency’s field offices were in either high or medium COVID-19 transmission levels.
“When the agency is trying to push to two days, it just isn’t a safe time to do that. There are really problematic conditions,” she said.
Frontline EEOC employees in the union are the last group of the agency’s employees to return to an office setting. Previously, senior leaders, supervisors and managers returned to the office on a similar timeline, starting at one day per week for the first month, then moving up to two days per week.
AFGE recommended bringing EEOC union employees back to the office in a phased approach based on local COVID-19 transmission levels, but the union said the agency implemented a generalized return-to-office plan without completing negotiations.
Shonfield said she’s concerned about the agency wanting to bring all employees back to the office, regardless of whether they have public-facing duties. She said it’s critical to get an agreement and wants employees to remain at only one day per week in the office due to rising COVID-19 levels in some areas.
“Our bargaining unit is very committed to carrying out our duties that put in place the civil rights laws that we enforce, and we’ve been doing that effectively for two years remotely,” Shonfield said. “We have a plan for how we could offer some services in person for members of the public who need to come in. There’s a way to do that safely and still only have folks coming into the office one day and possibly more if they have public facing duties that need to occur in the office.”
EEOC Communications Director Victor Chen told Federal News Network that its COVID-19 coordination team continuously monitors transmission rates of the virus in communities at its headquarters office and its 53 field offices across the country. The team updates EEOC employees every week.
“When community levels are high in the county where an EEOC office is located, all EEOC employees, contractors and visitors are required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status,” Chen said. “Individuals who are not vaccinated are required to follow EEOC’s screening testing program.”
EEOC said it also follows governmentwide health and safety guidance, monitors local COVID-19 conditions and requires masks in the office in counties with high transmission. The agency is following the lead of the Safer Federal Workforce task force, which last week clarified and added new guidance on governmentwide COVID-19 policies.
“Per the [task force’s] current guidance, occupancy limits no longer apply to federal workplaces. Previously, occupancy limits were based on CDC’s community transmission rates, which are now obsolete,” Chen said. “The [task force] requires federal agencies to review community levels weekly to determine current safety protocols.”
Shonfield also wrote two letters in the last two weeks to EEOC Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows about health and safety concerns in increasing to two days a week of in-person work.
“The agency has received the union’s letter and the issues the union raised are being carefully considered. The agency currently has no plans to change the reentry timeline for staff, but will continue to closely monitor local conditions and public health guidance and respond accordingly,” Chen said.
Chen added that EEOC headquarters and field office staff are able to physically distance with the current one-day-per-week schedule and that will still be possible once staff begin returning to the office two days per week.
“In-office days are staggered and, where necessary, staff schedules have been adjusted to allow for distancing,” he said.
But telework also works well in many cases, the agency said, specifically for its mediation program – an alternative way that the agency resolves workplace disputes. In a June 1 press release, EEOC reported that its virtual mediation program has been “highly successful.”
“EEOC mediators found that online mediation is easier to use and more flexible than in-person mediation, achieved similar or better quality and value of settlements for both parties and increased access to justice for charging parties,” the press release stated. “Participants cited flexibility, convenience, cost savings and a ‘safe space’ as reasons for preferring online mediation.”
Currently there is no further information on the agency’s reentry plan after it expires on Dec. 31, but EEOC will use its reentry procedures this year to inform future plans for in-office work. EEOC continues to communicate with the union and considers AFGE valuable in ensuring a safe and successful return to physical offices, Chen said.
Shonfield, though, continues to push for more response from EEOC leaders to work through negotiations, which are currently on hold.