HQ guard tests positive; reopening fight intensifies

By Kelsey Brugger | 07/21/2020 01:25 PM EDT

An EPA security guard at headquarters tested positive for COVID-19, forcing several of the building’s entrances to shut down.

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)

An EPA security guard at headquarters tested positive for COVID-19, forcing several of the building’s entrances to shut down.

According to an email obtained by E&E News, the facility office informed staff that "out of an abundance of caution" five entranceways in the William Jefferson Clinton complex would be closed for cleaning. The entryways will reopen tomorrow at 5 a.m., the email says.

EPA spokesman James Hewitt confirmed the case today and said the agency "closed the space occupied by the guard and is currently deep cleaning that space according to CDC guidelines."


The case comes as a fight intensifies between EPA and the agency’s largest federal union over plans to reopen offices in Washington and throughout the country.

In a sharply worded letter obtained by E&E News, the American Federation of Government Employees charged the agency was hastily rushing to reopen offices and has shown "bad faith" in ongoing contract talks over the restart plans.

Gary Morton, president of AFGE Council 238, which represents 7,500 EPA employees, asserted that the agency’s latest decision to put out "Phase 3" guidance "was issued as if COVID-19 was not out of control, as if the country weren’t stumbling to recover from the gut-punch of 75,000 new cases daily and climbing, as if we were not grieving nearly 1,000 daily deaths — all due, at least in part, to overly ambitious re-opening plans."

Morton further claimed the administration has continued to fail to "serve EPA workers and our mission" and "instead will sacrifice workplace safety in the advancement of a political position."

He urged EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to "pump the brakes" on the reopening plans.

EPA has maintained it is cautiously moving toward reopening, relying on local data, its scientists and other experts to inform decisions.

Since March, EPA employees have been working from home. Headquarters remains in "Phase 1" after the agency had to delay advancing to the next phase as it evaluated local public health data. Phase 1 gives employees the option of returning to the office but encourages them to continue remote work (E&E News PM, July 17).

But in some regions, "Phase 3" could start in about two weeks, he wrote.

But he argued the union could not properly negotiate "Phase 3" because the document was not even issued until the night before the last day of bargaining. "Like most acts of bad faith, this doesn’t even make sense!" he wrote.

In a statement, Hewitt did not respond specifically to Morton’s letter but said the agency was taking a "measured and deliberate approach" to bringing employees back.

"All EPA facilities are evaluated weekly using data from the CDC and other expert sources," he wrote. "This data is also reviewed by EPA scientific experts. These reviews, along with consideration of the status of the state and local reopenings, informs each decision."

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.