It’s complicated: Tensions between EPA, unions persist

By Kevin Bogardus | 06/23/2021 12:32 PM EST

American Federation of Government Employees supporters during a federal workforce union rally outside the Capitol. Francis Chung/E&E News

EPA has embarked on a bumpy road in repairing relations with its employee unions.

The Trump administration targeted federal employee unions, seeking to check their sway within their respective agencies. At that time, EPA was one of the harsher places for organized labor. The agency imposed a restrictive contract on its largest union over protests and advanced a phased reopening plan during the COVID-19 pandemic that met fierce resistance.

The White House’s tone toward federal employees has since flipped, with President Biden urging agencies to engage with their unions and renegotiate contracts to exclude Trump-era provisions. Still, that new approach has been slow to take at EPA where career managers remain, including several who carried out Trump’s orders to crack down on unions.

"The message hasn’t reached the troops in the field that the cease-fire is in effect," Gary Morton, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, told E&E News.

The council represents about 7,500 EPA employees, making it the agency’s largest union.

Other EPA union officials have mixed feelings as the new administration has taken charge of the agency.

Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Local 3631, said she is no longer worried about being fired for doing her union work, saying, "Under the past administration, there was just a constant fear as well as a fight for basic rights."

But she acknowledged that there have been "growing pains" as the new administration settles in.

"It’s a matter for both sides to realize that we’re under a new administration with new goals and a new outlook towards unions," Owens Powell told E&E News. "I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic. I’m trying to give folks time. But the time is coming."

Andrea Medici, chief steward for National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280, which represents EPA headquarters’ professional employees, also said the tone of communications with unions has improved but that she has been left disappointed.

"They only express appreciation and concern in a general way, for these employees, for this staff," Medici told E&E News. "But individual employees are being mistreated, and they’re ignoring it."

In response to questions from E&E News for this story, EPA shared a statement from Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe.

"EPA’s unions are central to a thriving EPA workforce. Continuing our constructive dialogue with the unions is a top priority and is central to our efforts to reset our relationship after four long and hard years," McCabe said, adding the agency has reversed policies and reinstated more fair contracts "to address issues, support a healthy, safe work environment, and improve the labor-management relationship."

Preparing for reentry

Union officials have shared their concerns with EPA’s new political leadership.

"While change is often difficult, I feel obliged to tell you the transition to the union-partnering Biden Administration has not been as smooth as I hoped," Morton told McCabe in a letter last week, adding, "Agency Labor Employee Relation (LER) representatives continue to employ tactics they used during the Trump administration."

This is a sensitive time for the agency and its unions. As the pandemic wanes, EPA is developing a return-to-work plan that could see its workforce, the vast majority which has been teleworking since March 2020, head back to the office.

EPA is required to complete that reentry plan by July 19 under guidance from the administration, and it will then be negotiated with the agency’s unions.

In his letter to McCabe, Morton pushed for AFGE to have more "pre-decisional involvement" in drafting that plan, rather than negotiating it after it’s presented to the union. In addition, he said, the agency has not shared documents or plans with an "EPA Labor COVID Coalition" it set up.

Since early March, EPA has invited its unions to plan a new labor-management forum, which includes the ELCC as part of that vision. The agency remains hopeful AFGE will join the other unions in forum discussions, according to an EPA spokesman.

EPA has also sought feedback from its employees on returning to the office, noting in an email sent to staff last week that the agency has held 184 listening sessions and received more than 10,000 survey responses.

AFGE officials felt that EPA stalled on reopening contract talks to toss Trump-era measures from their prior deal, as called for by a Biden executive order. An interim agreement has been reached to help launch those negotiations (Greenwire, May 14).

But in a footnote to his letter to McCabe, Morton said it was "extremely disappointing" that the union had to bring in a federal mediator to ensure EPA’s labor relations staff implemented Biden’s order.

"There are folks who have seen Biden’s executive orders coming out about collective bargaining and worker empowerment but are not seeing the same level of commitment from the agency to implement those relative to other executive orders," Undine Kipka, president of AFGE Local 3428, which represents EPA Region 1 employees, told E&E News.

"During the Trump administration, we fought vociferously to protect EPA workers," said Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees. "I did not expect to have to continue fighting so hard six months into the Biden administration."

On March 24, the director of EPA’s labor and employee relations division reached out to the agency’s union leaders and proposed new goals for partnering with unions, according to an EPA spokesperson. In addition, in March, EPA shared with the unions its approach to ensure Biden’s executive order was implemented.

Morton has also pressed the agency about EPA’s office closures and relocations started during the Trump administration in a March 1 letter, but those moves are likely to advance.

EPA’s latest congressional justification named some moves as continuing, such as consolidating employees from its Houston laboratory to one in Ada, Okla., and co-locating the Region 9 lab’s operations in Corvallis, Ore.

EPA is following direction by previous administrations and Congress to reduce its federal footprint in real estate and better use taxpayer dollars, according to an agency spokesperson.

Other union officials have seen mistreatment of EPA employees continue into the new administration.

"The lack of compassion and support for the struggles of fellow human beings, much less for employees who depend on their managers for their very livelihood, was discouraging up until January 19, 2021; it is downright disturbing now, more than 100 days later," Medici said in a May 4 open letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan and McCabe.

Medici described in her letter how, despite praise for EPA employees’ work during the pandemic, agency supervisors gave poor performance reviews to workers, including some who were infected with COVID-19 or lost family members to the virus.

In response, McCabe said she wanted to hear more and that she believes unions give "critical input" on employees’ working conditions.

"I know the agency’s staff have been through a lot over the past several years," McCabe said in a May 9 email.

EPA union officials told E&E News that McCabe met with them earlier this month.

"As we continue discussions with all unions representing EPA employees, Administrator Regan and I remain strongly committed to transparency when it comes to decisions that will significantly impact the workforce, as we strive to rebuild a positive and forward-looking relationship," McCabe said.

Regan’s outreach

Regan has been meeting with EPA’s unions, too. Yesterday, he held calls with officials with NTEU and later AFGE, according to entries on his public calendar. The administrator also held a meeting with EPA union leaders on April 15.

Union officials have appreciated that outreach.

"We were very impressed for the administrator’s concern for employees and his openness and willingness to talk to us," Michael Ottlinger, president of NTEU Chapter 279, which represents EPA employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office, told E&E News.

Ottlinger also said he has seen labor relations progress at EPA since the last administration. "The improvement has been the openness, the respect for unions and the willingness to collaborate with us on things that impact working conditions for employees," he said.

Lesley Mills, president of National Association of Government Employees Local R1-240, which represents EPA employees in Narragansett, R.I., said the difference between the Trump and Biden administrations was "night and day," with unions now being treated with respect.

She told E&E News that EPA and its unions are "moving from a confrontational relationship to a partnership."

"Many of the LER folks came on during the Trump administration. It’s a complete change in mindset. They’re having a tough time, some more than others," Mills said, adding, "Some of the union folks also came on during the Trump administration, so they’re used to a confrontational relationship."

In a speech last week accepting the William K. Reilly Award for Environmental Leadership on behalf of EPA’s career workforce, Regan noted the tough times under the prior administration.

"Many of my colleagues felt that guiding purpose that first led them to EPA, and they seemed to have veered off course during that previous administration," Regan said. "But they should know that their integrity, their decency, their commitment to doing what’s right — well, those are the things that ultimately prevail."

New support boss nominated

Donna Vizian, a key figure in the disputes between EPA and its unions, is retiring from the agency at the end of next month.

Vizian, a senior career official who led EPA’s Office of Mission Support on an acting basis throughout the Trump administration, oversaw human resources and labor relations. Her office was involved in the AFGE contract fight as well as reopening plans. Lynnann Hitchens will step into Vizian’s role after the latter’s exit (E&E News PM, June 17).

Biden has nominated Amanda Howe — a former Democratic campaign official who was chief operating officer for Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign — for the mission support head position, but she awaits Senate confirmation.

Owens Powell with AFGE said having a new person appointed to that position "will open up the conversation."

The EPA Region 3 union leader added that she is hoping to see "a good working relationship between the agency and its unions" that considers EPA and its staff’s needs.

"I hope to see we get all of this behind us and concentrate on the mission of the agency," Owens Powell said.