EPA’s largest employee union has voted that it has "no confidence" in the agency’s plans to reopen offices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 7,500 EPA employees, said the agency has not addressed concerns about worker safety. The union has pushed to have employees continue teleworking until a safe vaccine is available, but EPA began a phased approach to reopening.
In a letter yesterday to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the council said actions by the agency’s management "have undermined its credibility and eroded trust." Consequently, the union voted that it had no confidence that "worker health and safety is the top priority of EPA leadership" and that management can keep EPA workers, building staff and their families safe as the agency reopens.
The AFGE council, which is made up of 13 local unions in agency offices across the country, also held a vote for EPA employees over email, which opened last week and closed yesterday. In that vote, 695 out of 750 votes were for "no confidence" in EPA’s reopening plans. The results of that vote will be sent to lawmakers on Capitol Hill who oversee EPA.
During an EPA employee town hall held over Zoom last night, Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, said that federal employees can’t strike under labor law but that the union wanted to send its loudest message yet to EPA not to proceed with reopening.
"This was our way of expressing our extreme discontent with the fact that our lives, our family’s lives and our community were going to be put into harm’s way by an administration for no reason at all, for no reason, just for the political whim of this administration," Cantello said.
Asked for a response to the "no confidence" vote, EPA spokesman James Hewitt told E&E News the charges were not founded.
"These are baseless allegations," Hewitt said. "Reopening decisions are determined with the help of career EPA scientists and by examining guidance and orders of local and state officials. EPA has taken a number of measures and precautions to ensure a safer work environment that include giving worker flexibility to telework and cleaning work spaces."
During the EPA employee town hall, staff were upset with the agency’s continued push to reopen offices. EPA has done so in phases, with headquarters and main regional offices now in phase 2, except Region 7 in Lenexa, Kan., which remains in phase 1.
EPA employees are encouraged to telework during the initial phases of the reopening, but workers and union officials are concerned about when their offices enter phase 3. That phase will require most EPA employees to return to the workplace, although telework will be used as they rotate back into the office during its beginning weeks.
EPA has set up an internal dashboard for employees with the agency’s own metrics on the spread of COVID-19 near their offices. Some reopening criteria on the dashboard have often not been met when EPA moves a facility to the next phase, the latest example being the San Francisco office in Region 9 (Greenwire, Oct. 2).
At last night’s employee town hall, Brian Kelly, a member with AFGE Local 704, said EPA will not protect its employees from the virus.
"The administration wants to reopen offices but won’t require masks. They say thermometers are too expensive. They don’t follow their own dashboard. It’s clear science is not a basis for reopening. It’s political," Kelly said.
Union officials said EPA staff have been teleworking effectively during the pandemic. They believe the agency’s move to reopen is to make a political point that the virus is not a serious danger.
Felicia Chase, also with AFGE Local 704, said the agency failed to account for how reopening could affect Black and Indigenous people, who are from communities that have seen more deaths from COVID-19.
EPA’s rush "to return the workforce to an unsafe workplace is just straight up racist," Chase said.
The union’s "no confidence" vote comes as President Trump contracted the virus. The president returned to the White House yesterday evening from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, telling Americans not to let COVID-19 "dominate your lives." Those remarks as well as the spread of the virus through White House staff sparked frustration from EPA employees during the town hall.
Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Local 3631, which represents EPA Region 3 employees, noted the agency’s Philadelphia office had lost a staffer to the virus.
"It is infuriating and insulting to hear the comments out of Washington, D.C., about the COVID virus," Owens Powell said. "We have all lost family and friends."
Ed Guster, AFGE Council 238’s sergeant-at-arms and a member of AFGE Local 3911, which represents EPA Region 2 employees, said his sister nearly died from the virus, while others he knew have succumbed to it.
"This is what we’re up against. We have a president who really, truly does not care, and doesn’t care if you live or die, or doesn’t care if your family members live or die," Guster said. "This is wrong, and we need to stand up."