EPA offers staff new expectations on return to office

By Kevin Bogardus | 08/11/2021 03:23 PM EST

The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes the COVID-19 disease, which has spread rapidly around the globe. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Francis Chung/E&E News (EPA photo); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (virus)

EPA employees may be returning to the office in November this year, although that could be pushed back as agency officials keep track of the rising COVID-19 pandemic.

Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told EPA employees in an internal email obtained by E&E News that the agency projected in mid-July a "no-sooner-than" date of Nov. 7 for the staff’s return to the workplace. Yet that "earliest possible date" was identified "before the resurgence of COVID-19 cases we are currently experiencing," she said.

"We are watching the data and any date for a return to EPA offices will take into account real world conditions, so this date could be after November 7 and will not change to an earlier date," McCabe said in the email sent to employees earlier today.

"EPA is taking the utmost care to ensure we are ready for this transition," she added. "Our planning and decisions are always guided by science and your safety and many issues are still being thought through and need to be discussed with our union partners."

In addition, EPA employees will have a notice period of at least 45 days before returning to the office.

The vast majority of agency staff members have been teleworking since March 2020 to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. Employees and union officials at EPA have been anxious over plans to return the office, arguing that they have been working safely and effectively from home.

McCabe also said EPA is working to implement requirements announced by President Biden last month that will require federal employees to attest to their vaccination status. If they choose not to share that information, they will face restrictions like wearing a mask no matter where they work, keeping their distance from others and being tested for COVID-19 once or twice weekly.

"If you are not yet vaccinated, I urge you to visit www.vaccines.gov to find a vaccination location near you," McCabe said in the email.

In addition, the deputy administrator said, EPA is developing post-reentry policies based on an employee survey as well as 184 listening sessions. The agency is also working on updating its workplace safety plan as well as telework and remote work policies.

McCabe added, "EPA is continuing to maximize telework for all eligible EPA staff, including those in our office and laboratory spaces." She noted that the agency is sticking to safety protocols for those who must work in person and that occupancy limits in the office are still in effect.

In guidance released in June, the Biden administration tasked EPA and other federal agencies with completing their reentry plans by July 19. At the time, however, the pandemic was on the wane.

Now, the more transmissible delta variant of the virus has led to a spike in infections across the country. McCabe said in her email that she understands employees’ worries over the pandemic.

"Please know that I fully understand how much our current situation impacts decisions about your family and personal lives, including children returning to school and care for vulnerable family members," said the deputy administrator in the email.

"You have my commitment to keep you updated about our plans, so this is the first of what I plan to be regular communications to you."