Bargaining unit employees are expected to double their amount of in-office work next week, despite increasing numbers of agency offices located in high transmission regions.
A union representing frontline workers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employees are concerned about an impending expansion of in-person work amid rising COVID-19 case numbers, but that the agency has thus far ignored pleas to put the plan on hold.
On May 16, bargaining unit employees, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees Council 216, began reporting to EEOC offices once a week, following a unilateral decision by management to begin reentry despite the fact that negotiations over how employees would return to traditional worksites remained unfinished. The decision sparked a pair of unfair labor practice complaints to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
Since the first of those complaints was filed on May 6—the day that EEOC announced it would commence reentry—communication between the union and agency has broken down. Although the agency provided its latest counter offer on reentry negotiations on May 13, it cancelled previously scheduled briefings with the union on a draft program that would address remote work, and the agency has yet to respond to the union’s latest proposal on reentry, which was delivered May 17.
In a May 27 letter to EEOC Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows, AFGE Council 216 President Rachel Shonfield expressed concern that EEOC employees would move to two days per week of in-office work beginning June 20, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
In the week of May 16, when reentry began, only three EEOC offices—Buffalo, Boston and Detroit—were in regions with high COVID-19 transmission levels, per the CDC. But by the week of May 23, that number grew to eight offices, including Miami, San Juan, New York, Honolulu and Milwaukee. Last week, a total of 14 agency offices were in regions with high COVID transmission levels, and an additional 20 offices were in medium transmission levels.
“Each week since you required bargaining unit staff to begin reporting to offices, according to the CDC, more and more EEOC offices are moving into worsening COVID community transmission levels,” Shonfield wrote. “It is not safe for EEOC to bring employees into the office more often at a time when COVID is surging. This foreseeably will lead to more employees at the agency, which you lead, contracting COVID and exposing the public and others.”
Shonfield said there are already at least five cases the union has learned about where EEOC employees have contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of reentry, as well as several other cases at agencies located in the same building as EEOC offices. In an interview with Government Executive, she said feeding employees’ uncertainty is a lack of clarity from the agency about what level of community transition would trigger a delay to reentry plans.
“The only thing I’m aware of is ... [a] large foam posterboard across from the elevator to the office suite [at my office], and it has a Velcro ‘This office is in high community transmission’ sign, and when we’re in ‘high,’ staff is to wear masks in the offices,” she said. “Now, the public has not yet returned to the office, but that’s a key negotiation subject that needs to occur.”
An EEOC spokesperson said that when the community transmission level is high in a region, all employees and visitors to an agency office must wear masks, and unvaccinated individuals must comply with the agency's COVID-19 testing regimen. The spokesperson said the cancellation of briefings with the union was due to "scheduling" issues, but said AFGE remains a "valued partner" in ensuring employees remain safe.
"The agency has received the union’s letter and the issues the union raised are being carefully considered," the spokesperson said. "The agency currently has no plans to change the reentry timeline for staff, but will continue to closely monitor local conditions and public health guidance and respond accordingly. EEOC headquarters and field office staff are able to physically distance with the current one-day-per-week schedule and that will continue to be possible once staff begin returning to the office two days per week."
EEOC’s relative silence since unilaterally commencing reentry before the completion of collective bargaining negotiations has been particularly frustrating, given the Biden administration’s focus on improving labor-management relations across government and instructing agencies to pursue collaboration with labor partners, Shonfield said.
“It would be hard to tell which administration is in office right now,” she said. “It was a problem in the Trump administration that bargaining obligations were not occurring, and now we’re seeing this here. The Biden administration and the [White House Safer Federal Workforce Task Force] is specific about the bargaining obligations required for reentry, but the agency just went ahead anyway.”
This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site ("The EEOC Is Proceeding With Office Reentry Plans Despite COVID-19 Spikes. Its Union Wants More Communication.")