EPA adopts ‘hybrid workplace’ model in office reentry plans set for May

The Environmental Protection Agency is the latest agency planning on bringing its workforce back to the office on a phased basis starting in May.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the latest agency planning on bringing its workforce back to the office on a phased basis starting in May.

The EPA and the American Federation of Government Employees agreed to a memorandum of understanding earlier this month that outlines a phased reentry into the office, but envisions a hybrid work environment where employees either work remotely or routinely telework.

The agreement states that no AFGE bargaining unit employee will be required to physically return to the office prior to May 2.

While the availability of post-office reentry telework for some federal employees appears unclear at some agencies, the EPA in the memo plans to work with AFGE on exploring routine use of hybrid meetings and “develop best practices for virtual options in a hybrid work environment.”

“The workplace of the future will rely heavily on technology to facilitate effective communication and collaboration for individuals who may not be occupying the same physical workspace, and so the agency will continue to leverage technology to support a hybrid workplace,” the memo states.

Joyce Howell, AFGE Council 238’s chief negotiator for the future of work, said the office reentry memo reflects the fact that much of the EPA’s work is conducive to telework, and doesn’t require its employees to commute unnecessarily.

“If people have fully portable work that does not require them to come into the office on a routine basis, then there doesn’t seem to be a justification for increasing their carbon footprint by commuting into the office and occupying an office space when they don’t have to,” Howell said in an interview Monday.

Employees looking to apply for telework or remote work should submit their initial applications no later than 21 days prior to the expected reentry date.

Bargaining unit employees may work with their supervisor to establish a start date for their new telework or remote work agreement unless those employees are performing mission-critical worker or facilities-related work.

Employees may request telework, situational telework, or other workplace flexibilities based on their personal situations or COVID levels.

The memo between AFGE and the EPA describes a phased reentry into the office.

Starting May 2, employees are expected to show up in the office at least one day that pay period.

The following pay period, employees are expected to work in the office at least two days that pay period. On the third pay period, employees are expected to work in the office for at least three days that pay period.

By the fourth pay period, employees are expected to resume “normal” work schedules.

Bethany Dreyfus, the president of AFGE Local 1236, which represents EPA Region 9 employees in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Islands, said the phased reentry will allow EPA facilities to better understand office space needs.

“The ramp-up is going to be helpful because we don’t know exactly what the office is going to look like, now that we have people using remote work and telework more commonly,” Dreyfus said.

The EPA will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Biden administration’s Safer Federal Workforce task force.

Employees with a COVID close contact or suspected COVID close contact in the workplace or while performing agency duties must get tested. Employees with a suspected COVID close contact may telework if they have portable work available.

All employees must wear masks in EPA offices when the EPA dashboard indicates that their office is in a high community level of COVID infection.

Prior to employees returning to the office, the EPA will inspect office ventilation, communicate COVID safety plans to staff and ensure cleaning supplies are available.

When COVID community levels are at medium or high, EPA employees who are not fully vaccinated but work in the office, travel on official business or interact with the public must follow the agency’s screening testing program.

Under that program, employees who enter agency facilities at least four days a week must get tested at least twice a week. Employees three or fewer days a week but get tested once a week.

Refusal to take a required test may result in the agency preventing employees from entering the workplace.

“Nothing in this agreement supersedes the agency’s ability to take disciplinary action against employees,” the memo states.

EPA employees represented by AFGE may voluntarily re-enter EPA facilities without restriction prior to the reentry, but cannot be coerced into volunteering.

The memo acknowledges that some employees with facility-related duties may need to come into the office more often to prepare for a larger return of employees coming back to the office.

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