EPA plans return to offices. What does that look like?

By Kevin Bogardus | 05/28/2020 01:21 PM EDT

EPA is sharing guidelines with staff as it prepares to begin a phased reopening of some of its offices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plans to reopen EPA offices are in the works.

Plans to reopen EPA offices are in the works. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News(illustration); Francis Chung/E&E News(EPA photo); CDC(virus)

Bring your own mask. Maybe close down the salad bar. And ask yourself: Have you lost your sense of smell or taste?

Those are some of the guidelines EPA is sharing with its staff as the agency prepares to begin a phased reopening of some of its offices during the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA’s workforce has been teleworking since March to slow the spread of the virus.

Administrator Andrew Wheeler last week announced that EPA’s Regions 4 in Atlanta; 7 in Lenexa, Kan.; and 10 in Seattle would begin the reopening process. But union officials at the agency have protested the move, saying EPA is moving too fast and hasn’t met the criteria to call employees back to work.


Yesterday, Donna Vizian, who leads EPA’s Office of Mission Support, told employees in an internal email obtained by E&E News that the agency has posted "useful resources" for what to expect when returning to the workplace. Those guidance documents included a checklist for managing facilities as well as information on contact tracing and EPA’s approach to reopening.

"Thank you for all that you are doing. Please stay safe and well," Vizian said.

One of the records is a self-assessment questionnaire. EPA employees are supposed to ask themselves several questions before they leave for the office, including whether they have a fever or chills; a cough or trouble breathing; or a "new loss of taste or smell."

"If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, please stay home," says the document.

The return-to-the-workplace document provides an overview of how EPA offices will reopen, beginning with a seven-day closure for cleaning and to render the virus inactive, and then going through three phases. Employees will be encouraged to telework during the first two phases, with "workplace status" returning to pre-pandemic levels during phase 3.

Still, during that last phase, "social distancing guidelines should be given to members of the vulnerable population who request such consideration," the document says.

Another document on contact tracing says the agency will designate a contact tracing point of contact for each program and regional office. That person will have "direct access" to EPA’s senior leadership and "understand that all information must be kept strictly confidential."

The document also provides several email templates for staff to use when a co-worker becomes infected with COVID-19. "We know these are challenging and uncertain times," says one.

The facility checklist has a number of lists on how to manage EPA offices during the pandemic. It says rules on social distancing, face masks and entry screening should established prior to reopening.

"Where a face cover is recommended by a local public health agency, personnel are responsible for providing their own," it says.

The document also says managers should consider reducing "the use of multiple entry-points" into EPA buildings, prop open inner office doors to avoid touching doorknobs, and close or restrict common areas like conference rooms and fitness centers, among many suggestions.

It also says to "limit or prohibit self-service food options, including salad bars," and have floor markings to indicate "appropriate spacing" if lines form for food service.

Union pushback

Union officials at EPA have objected to the agency’s plans to reopen, saying they remained concerned about workers’ health and safety during the pandemic. That includes union leaders in agency offices that are not planning to reopen yet.

"If there is a reopening of federal workplaces, more people will use public transit and communal work spaces, and the more the virus will spread. The more the virus spreads, the more our hospitals will be overrun, and the more people will die," said Nicole Cantello, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, in a letter to Region 5 Administrator Kurt Thiede last Friday.

That region’s main office is in Chicago and oversees EPA operations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"We ask that you meet with us, explain what stage Cleveland, Ann Arbor and Chicago are in meeting the ‘gating criteria’ and bargain a plan that puts people’s lives first," Cantello said.

AFGE Council 238, which represents about 7,500 EPA employees, had similar sentiments in a letter to Wheeler last week, saying there was "no justification" for reopening (Greenwire, May 26).

An EPA spokeswoman told E&E News the agency is making sure its staff remains safe.

"As Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated last week, EPA’s plan for an eventual phased return to agency offices will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures our employees’ health and safety," said the agency spokeswoman, adding that staff will have "maximum telework" and will not be forced to return to the office.

"The union’s statements do not reflect the reality of our reopening process nor the transparent engagement we’ve maintained with all our employees," she said.

The EPA spokeswoman added that after a second review of health data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency entered phase 1 of reopening in Atlanta, Seattle and Lenexa this week.

"No other offices have entered Phase 1 and employees are still instructed to telework. When other offices meet the gating criteria, reopening will also be phased in a measured and deliberate approach," said the spokeswoman. She added EPA’s unions have had seven formal briefings and will continue to be informed during the reopening process.

"However, the Administrator talks directly to the employees and does not need to speak through the unions. The agency will fulfill any bargaining obligations required by law," said the agency spokeswoman.

As of today, 41 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and one employee has died from the virus, said the EPA spokeswoman.