Federal union concerns over the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s return-to-office plans are garnering more attention.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees labor management concerns for the federal workforce, issued a complaint against EEOC about its reentry policies on July 28.
The complaint came after the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents frontline EEOC employees, filed four unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints against the agency. Many of the concerns stemmed from EEOC instituting office reentry plans for its union-covered employees before completing negotiations with AFGE. According to FLRA’s labor-management statute, negotiations over a memorandum of understanding (MOU) should be completed before implementing office reentry, said Rachel Shonfield, president of AFGE council 216, which represents EEOC employees.
“It was shocking and concerning that the EEOC was just moving forward and disregarding this,” she told Federal News Network.
“The EEOC is strongly committed to good faith bargaining regarding the impact and implementation of reentry following the unprecedented maximum telework period instituted governmentwide as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Chen wrote in an email.
In the MOU, the union recommended EEOC implement a phased office reentry plan dependent on local COVID-19 community transmission levels, as well as conduct regular safety inspections and office walk-throughs. But the agency went forward with an all-at-once approach to office reentry before finishing negotiations with AFGE, Shonfield said. The policies did not include many of the union’s recommendations.
“Since EEOC ordered employees to return to worksites, most offices have moved into high COVID-19 community transmission levels, with positive cases reported in many offices,” AFGE wrote in an August 3 press release.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that last week, 39 out of EEOC’s 53 offices were in the high transmission COVID-19 community level.
Shonfield said maximizing telework could help EEOC limit the spread of COVID-19. Agency workers have successfully conducted intakes, mediations and hearings by telephone and virtually since the pandemic without issue, she said. Even before to the pandemic, EEOC employees often conducted customer intakes by telephone, and conducted hearings virtually.
But EEOC said some vulnerable sectors of the public struggle to reach agency employees virtually. Returning employees to a physical office setting supports underserved communities who often have limited access to the internet.
“We view the union as a valuable partner in ensuring a safe and productive return to the agency’s physical workplaces so that we can serve the American people, including the most vulnerable workers, many of whom may have difficulty reaching us virtually,” Chen wrote.
Republican lawmakers have also voiced concerns about EEOC’s ability to effectively serve the public virtually. In March, Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-Va.) and James Comer (R-Ky.) wrote a letter to EEOC Commissioner Chair Burrows, claiming that large-scale remote work limited the agency’s mission delivery.
But EEOC’s lack of flexibility in its office reentry policy, and its limits on telework for employees, have other negative effects, Shonfield said. After the agency implemented its reentry plans, she said AFGE saw many EEOC employees move to other agencies that offer greater workplace flexibilities.
“EEOC really needs to modernize and allow for the same workplace flexibilities as other agencies,” she said.
A similar trend is occurring across the government, too. Across all agencies, many federal employees now expect more flexibility on telework policies, which allow for greater work-life balance. Employees are “agency-hopping” based on that flexibility, and sometimes leaving the federal workforce altogether, said Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja during a government operations subcommittee meeting for the House Oversight and Reform Committee in July.
As some employees leave EEOC for agencies with more telework opportunities, that exacerbates EEOC’s understaffing, potentially resulting in longer wait times for the public to get help with discrimination complaints.
“We’re already short-staffed, and people are leaving, especially experienced employees,” Shonfield said. “That’s causing a bigger problem with the short-staffing. The way this shows up the most is coverage problems. People start an inquiry process with the EEOC and they need an appointment. Our appointment calendars are typically full.”
Aside from the four ULPs that FLRA included in its complaint, AFGE filed a fifth separate ULP on July 5, centered on EEOC not limiting in-office staffing to 25% capacity for areas with high COVID-19 community transmission rates. Shonfield said she expects to hear an update from FLRA on that complaint soon.
An FLRA administrative law judge will hold a hearing over the complaint on Feb. 2, 2023.