Even after signing a new contract, EPA and AFGE are still at odds over telework

Under a new collective bargaining agreement, eligible employees at the EPA can telework up to two days a week. But the agency suggested employees could have had...

Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency have a slightly more generous telework policy now under a recently signed contract between the agency and its largest union, the American Federation of Government Employees.

Signing the new contract was supposed to end a long, often contentious saga of collective bargaining between the two parties. But the two are again at odds over a series of comments from EPA, which suggest the agency had offered a more generous telework policy in exchange for the union’s concessions on official time and other matters.

EPA had unilaterally imposed a new contract on employees without the union’s agreement last summer. The original document included reductions in telework and official time, as well as limits on the union’s use of government property and office space.

But amid pressure from lawmakers and a decision from a Federal Labor Relations Authority investigator that said EPA had bargained in bad faith, the agency and union agreed to return to the bargaining table. EPA had agreed to rescind the contract it had unilaterally imposed, while AFGE agreed to drop the unfair labor practice charges and other grievances it had filed in recent months.

In July, EPA and AFGE reached agreement on a new contract. Both the agency and union, in their own ways, described the new bargaining agreement as a win.

For the agency, the new contract is the result of years of negotiations and “self-dealing by AFGE for partisan gains,” EPA said in an Aug. 6 press release.

AFGE, however, described the agreement as a “major contract victory,” where the union noted improvements on 13 articles over last year’s unilaterally-imposed contract.

Perhaps most notably for the EPA workforce, the new collective bargaining agreement allows employees to telework up to two days a week — an improvement over the one-day a week limit the agency had unilaterally implemented last summer.

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“Irrespective of telework schedule or alternative work schedule, employees are expected to report physically to the official worksite and duty station a minimum of three days per week,” the new bargaining agreement reads. “Maxi-flex scheduled days off, compressed days off and regular telework days will count as a day away from the official worksite for the purpose of this requirement. Any holiday, day in a paid leave status (e.g., annual, sick, credit hours, etc.), or official travel will not count as a day away from the official worksite for the purpose of this requirement.”

Employees must telework from within their local commuting areas, according to the agreement. It also confirms telework as part of EPA’s continuity of operation plan (COOP) and describes positions that are simply ineligible for remote work, which include those that need access to classified information, must maintain face-to-face interactions with their supervisors and members of the public or need to be physically present in a lab or testing site.

EPA employees must also maintain a performance rating of “fully successful” or higher to keep their telework agreements.

But the telework policy has sparked more contention between the agency and union.

In its Aug. 6 release, EPA said it had offered AFGE a “best and final deal,” which would have included more workplace flexibilities for agency employees. The union rejected the deal in exchange for official time and grievance policies, the agency said.

According to AFGE, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler had made a similar comment about extra telework flexibilities at an agency town hall meeting for region eight employees in late July. He suggested he would implement another telework policy without the union’s input after the pandemic.

AFGE, however, said the agency didn’t offer to expand telework during its bargaining negotiations. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge over the agency’s comments, which AFGE described as untrue.

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“I want to clearly and unequivocally state that AFGE did not ever ‘trade’ a widespread telework benefit for employees for one benefiting only union representatives during our recent contract negotiations,” Everett Kelley, the union’s national president, wrote in an Aug. 13 letter to Wheeler.

When asked to further detail what additional workplace flexibilities the agency had offered at the bargaining table, EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in a statement to Federal News Network: “The agency’s offer of increased telework flexibility during negotiations in return for AFGE’s agreement on official time and the negotiated grievance procedure is very well documented.”

“EPA will provide all requested documentation to FLRA and will comply with their investigation,” Hewitt said of the unfair labor practice charge.

Beyond telework, the new EPA-AFGE contract sets new rules on official time, which are consistent with the president’s 2018 workforce executive orders that prescribed limits on union hours.

No EPA union representative can spend 100% of his or her work hours on official time, according to the bargaining agreement. Official time usage across the bargaining unit is capped at 7,400 hours a year — one hour per member in the unit. According to OPM’s most recent report on the topic, EPA union representatives spent more than 58,274 hours on official time back in 2016.

Tensions between the agency and union have also been high throughout the course of the pandemic, as employees have expressed concerns over EPA’s reopening plans. The agency has said it plans to keep telework in place for high-risk employees and those with child and dependent care responsibilities. Others are expected to return to the office as normal, but those working in cubicle farms are eligible for a minimum of five days of telework a week per pay period during the initial eight weeks of EPA’s “phase three” reopening plan.

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