With majority of EPA offices starting to reopen, union prepares to bargain over reentry plans

As many regional offices at the Environmental Protection Agency have begun the initial stages of reopening, some employees are questioning the agency’s plans for reentry — and they’re looking for more details about what the office will be like when they return.

Offices within nearly all EPA regions — with the exceptions of region 6 in Dallas and region 9 in San Francisco — have entered phase one under the agency’s reopening plan. EPA offices in the national capital region have also reopened under phase one, the agency said.

Most EPA employees are expected to continue teleworking through phase one.

The American Federation of Government Employees is expected to begin collective bargaining with the EPA over its reopening plan starting July 13, the union said. Bargaining will last for a week.

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“EPA is finalizing a negotiation team and is expected to begin talks next week,” James Hewitt, an agency spokesman, said in an email to Federal News Network.

EPA and AFGE have sparred over the agency’s handling of the pandemic. EPA has said it conducted seven formal briefings over the course of 11 weeks to keep the union informed about its plans. It also launched an EPA facility dashboard, which uses state and local public health data to help agency leaders make reopening decisions. All EPA employees have access to the agency’s dashboard.

But the union has maintained EPA’s briefings don’t count as formal bargaining sessions and has insisted the agency negotiate its reopening policies with AFGE.

Their disagreements come as the agency’s inspector general announced plans to evaluate EPA’s reopening guidelines and the measures it’s taking to mitigate the risks of employees of returning to the office.

The upcoming study is part of a broader effort to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on agency operations, and though this report was self-initiated, the EPA IG was one of 24 inspectors general that received a request from House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) to review their agency’s reopening plans.

But as coronavirus cases surge in more than half of states across the country, some EPA employees fear the agency is rushing to return to the status quo, and they’re looking for more clarity and detail from the reopening plans.

They, like some other federal employees, worry their requests to continue teleworking to accommodate child and dependent care responsibilities won’t be granted.

Employees who don’t have child care options once their offices begin phase three of EPA’s reopening plan may ask their supervisors for telework accommodations, Nicole Cantello, president of the AFGE local representing region 5 employees in the Midwest, told reporters late last week during a Zoom conference call.

“EPA has placed a premium on employee safety in our response to COVID-19,” Molly Block, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email to Federal News Network. “We have put together plans to bring employees back into the work place that rely upon data and steps taken by state and local public health officials. These plans are consistent with the direction provided by the White House Task Force and have been supplemented to reflect EPA’s specific needs. We will continue to revise and supplement our reopening plan as necessary to ensure employee safety.”

Management has given employees inconsistent messages about when they can and can’t telework during various phases, employees said.

In the Philadelphia region, employees have been assigned one day a week to visit the office if they choose, said Joyce Howell, vice president of AFGE local 361. Some lower-level managers understood that guidance to mean that all employees must report to the office on their assigned day during phase one. But senior managers said it was simply an option, and employees should continue to telework consistently during the initial reopening phases, she said.

“Once your manager, the person who does your evaluation, puts that out there, it’s hard to ignore that,” Howell said. “You think, well, maybe I need to be a team player and come in. It does create some stress.”

For other employees, they want to see EPA make explicit, written plans that explain how the agency might respond or revert back to prior phases should coronavirus caseloads rise again in their regions.

The agency “apparently foresees reducing rather than increasing measures to keep us safe, even as a much larger population starts coming into the building and using the building,” said one employee who works in Washington, D.C. “What they say is that there will be occupancy limits for conference rooms and restrooms during phases one and two, but come phase three when everyone is supposed to come back to work then all those restrictions will be lifted.”

“The virus will still be here in phase three, and it’s just crazy that we’ll be ramping down these protective measures just when we’re coming together again,” the employee added.

EPA headquarters has placed social distancing signs around its building in Washington, and there are masks at the front door until they run out, said another D.C.-based employee who has been working at the office throughout the pandemic.

“If other people start coming back to the office I’m terrified I’m going to have to do something else,” the employee said.

Like many other agencies, EPA has placed a two-person limit in facility elevators. For EPA employees who work on the 18th and 19th floors in the region 5 building in Chicago, they’re concerned about the time it will take them to physically get to their desks to start work.

One region 5 employee said EPA management told the workforce to take the stairs if they’re worried about waiting for an elevator to the 18th or 19th floors.

Another EPA employee in region 9 said the elevator limits alone would limit the number of people who eventually return to his 20-story office building in San Francisco. For him, the risks and extra precautions of a phased reopening don’t outweigh the benefits of having more employees physically present at the office.

“I haven’t heard the benefits of this proposal to go back to the office,” the region 9 employee said. “I really love my colleagues. I really miss my colleagues. I wish I could be there to be around their intensity, their brilliance, their commitment to protecting human health and the environment and their diversity of their interests and backgrounds. It’s a great place to wander down the hall and ask someone for their advice on a new issue or to bump into someone at the water cooler and find that they’ve worked on something similar. It’s not as much fun picking up the phone and getting it done remotely. But if 90% of my colleagues aren’t there, then all of those benefits of being in the office aren’t there.”