Union pushes back on EPA reopening plans

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing ahead with plans to reopen its Washington, D.C., headquarters office despite broad opposition from its biggest union.

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing ahead with plans to reopen its Washington, D.C., headquarters office despite broad opposition from its biggest union.

Nicole Peterson, the EPA's Acting HR Director for the Division of Labor and Employee Relations, told leaders from the American Federation of Government Employees that the agency would continue to reopen facilities despite the union's claims that the agency had not adequately engaged with their concerns around the EPA's returning workplace plans and criteria for reopening in phases.

In a June 24 letter to AFGE General Counsel Cathie McQuiston and Council 238 President Gary Morton, Peterson accused the union of making "false accusations towards EPA leadership and management ... that negatively affected employee morale and led to a loss in productivity."

She also said that AFGE national leadership had failed to communicate internally with its local Council 238 leadership, which "stoked fear in employees about returning to the workplace."

AFGE Council 238 represents 8,000 EPA workers nationwide.

Peterson touted EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's "extensive, transparent, data-driven, measured and deliberate approach to returning to agency offices and facilities that ensures our employees' health and safety."

On June 8, Morton had sent EPA Administrator a letter asking for a moratorium on reopening any regional offices.

Since that time, new COVID-19 cases have spiked dangerously in many parts of the U.S., with almost 37,000 new cases reported June 24 -- a 47% spike over two weeks previous. The new cases are hitting after many states have curtailed precautions on business openings, gatherings, public events and entertainment.

EPA spokesperson James Hewitt told FCW that EPA political appointees returned to the Washington, D.C. office on June 23, but that other employees were encouraged to continue teleworking.

In response to Peterson's letter, AFGE's national office dismissed her claims that the union had been adequately updated as to the agency's plans for reopening.

"The best lies have a grain of truth to them. While it is true that EPA has given us notice and is apparently planning to bargain with us, what is also true is that they have moved ahead without completing those negotiations -- rushing to reopen offices with little regard to the health and safety of employees," the union said in a statement.

"EPA is enforcing its plans for reopening worksites without satisfying its legal obligations to negotiate the impact of those changes with AFGE," the statement read. "The COVID-19 pandemic does not allow EPA or any other agency to circumvent their bargaining obligations, and we intend to hold this administration accountable for failing to work with us to ensure the safety of the employees we represent and the public we serve."

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