EPA expands reopening for D.C. employees this week, but unions say moves are ‘reckless’

As the Environmental Protection Agency enters the second phase of its reopening plan in Washington, D.C., and other regions across the country, federal employee unions say the agency is moving forward without regard to its own metrics and criteria.

EPA launched phase two of its reopening plan for the national capital region and its region one offices in New England on Tuesday, the agency said.

Employees learned of the plan to move to the next phase last Friday.

“During phase 2, the agency is also providing the flexibility of up to full time telework for all employees,” James Hewitt, an EPA spokesman, said in an email to Federal News Network. “Therefore, we are not expecting these number to significantly change because the locations moved to phase two.”

About 150 employees returned to their offices in the national capital region during phase one, he said. Roughly 50 employees returned to EPA region one offices in New England during the first phase.

According to EPA’s reopening plan, telework is “encouraged if feasible with business operations” in phase two. Employees with dependent care responsibilities should continue to telework as long as they’ve informed their supervisors. EPA employees who are high-risk or live with someone who is vulnerable to the coronavirus should also continue teleworking, the plan reads.

But employee unions say the decision to move to phase two is premature and disappointing, because EPA’s own facility status dashboard on Friday showed three data points that do not meet the criteria set by the agency.

According to the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 2,200 EPA workers around the country, including 1,350 at the Washington headquarters, EPA’s facility status dashboard showed an upward trend in the daily number of new coronavirus cases in the region last week.

In addition, the dashboard showed no significant trend in the daily percentage of positive test results compared to overall tests, the union said.

The National Treasury Employees Union took a screenshot from EPA’s facility dashboard for the Washington, D.C. region. Union leaders say the data shows the EPA hasn’t met all of its own criteria to move to the next reopening phase. (NTEU)

The NTEU chapter posted a screenshot of the EPA dashboard for Washington, D.C. on Friday.

“It is disappointing that the union would spread misinformation,” Hewitt said when asked about the unions’ comments. “All employees have the option of teleworking in phase two. It is irresponsible for the union to claim that somehow continuing to telework puts employees at risk.”

The agency launched a dashboard of public health data earlier this summer, which pulls in information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about coronavirus cases, positivity rates and other details for a particular region. EPA scientists designed the dashboard as a way to help the agency track data that correspond to the criteria in the White House’s reopening framework — and then use that data to help inform decisions for each local facility.

“The dashboard is the not the sole driver in reopening decisions but rather helps form decisions,” Hewitt added. “The phase two reopening for the capital region is also determined by guidance from local and state officials.”

But for the unions, the decision to move forward contradicts the EPA administrator’s promise that reopening would be driven by science.

“This latest action cannot be considered ‘data-driven’ or ‘science-based’ decision-making when EPA’s own data analysis does not support it,” Amer Al-Mudallal, NTEU’s Chapter 280 president, said Monday in an email to EPA employees.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents a majority of EPA workers, described the phase two reopening plan as “reckless.”

“Throughout this devastating pandemic employees have looked to their leadership for accurate and credible responses that ensure the health and safety of all employees,” Nate James, president of the AFGE local representing EPA employees in Washington. “Sadly, it appears that our senior leadership is willing to spin the facts [and is] more concerned with maintaining appearances than employing safeguards that protect employee lives.”

Parts of the EPA workforce, like other federal employees, have described their concerns and anxieties with returning to the office during a pandemic.

The agency released its phase three reopening plan with some detail last month, which described an effort by EPA managers to develop new office floor plans to accomodate social distancing requirements.

Employees will be eligible for a minimum of five days of telework a pay period, but those with dependent care or health vulnerabilities can work out remote or flexible work schedules with their supervisors, EPA said.

Still, the unions say the agency hasn’t budged on making other flexibilities available to EPA employees during the pandemic.

“They refused to grant up to 20 hours per pay period of administrative leave or excuse absence/evacuation leave to employees engaged in caregiving obligations, the way that the State Department, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, General Services Administration, Government Accountability Office, U.S. Agency for International Development, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Interior, Justice and Energy Departments, NASA and other agencies have,” Al-Mudallal said.

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