Unions on racist incidents: ‘Employees deserve better’

By Kevin Bogardus | 05/17/2019 12:55 PM EDT

EPA union officials have grown disappointed in the agency’s response to a series of racist incidents that first grabbed attention last year.

EPA headquarters in Washington.

EPA headquarters in Washington. Robin Bravender/File/E&E News

EPA union officials have grown disappointed in the agency’s response to a series of racist incidents that first grabbed attention last year.

Administrator Andrew Wheeler sat down for a listening session in March with EPA employees and representatives from labor groups. In that meeting, they discussed the disturbing messages found by employees, like the racial slurs scrawled on a scheduling whiteboard in the agency’s public affairs office.

Since that listening session, EPA unions have requested a meeting with Wheeler to discuss the issue of race at the agency. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.


"That’s the problem. I hear talk, but I don’t see action," Nate James, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3331 who attended the listening session with Wheeler, told E&E News.

James, whose union represents EPA headquarters employees, said the agency needs to do more in response to the incidents that gained notice in the press more than six months ago (Greenwire, Nov. 1, 2018).

"We as employees understand they can’t reveal what an [inspector general] investigator is doing to catch the person or persons," James said. "Just give employees some assurance that this is being taken seriously and not being pushed to the side."

Others feel EPA’s response to the incidents has now faded as well.

"I was hoping the agency would do something more serious regarding these incidents rather than just having this listening session with the administrator," said Amer Al-Mudallal, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280, who also attended the session.

"The administrator mentioned in closing comments that this will not be the only meeting and there will be follow-ups," he said.

NTEU Chapter 280 represents professional series employees working in EPA headquarters.

EPA press officials did not go into detail in response to a list of questions from E&E News for this story but did offer that Wheeler has met twice with staff.

"Administrator Wheeler met with employees twice in March to reassure staff that it remains a priority to ensure a safe workplace for all and reiterate racism has no place here," said EPA spokesman James Hewitt.

"We do not discuss how we are investigating personnel issues," he said.

In the weeks after the discovered messages grabbed headlines last November, senior officials at EPA issued a series of strong statements that racism would not be tolerated at the agency (Greenwire, Nov. 20, 2018).

Wheeler also said in an internal email last November that the matter had been referred to the IG and "an active investigation is underway." In the listening session this March, Wheeler said the IG investigation was not completed but declined to share further details, union officials told E&E News.

EPA IG spokeswoman Tia Elbaum said, "It is the policy of the [Office of Inspector General] to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation."

Elbaum did confirm that the IG received EPA’s referral of the racist messages.

Since the listening session, union officials have pushed for more action from EPA.

Last month, James sent an email to EPA officials with recommendations on how the agency could stop more racist incidents, including hosting a town hall meeting on racism, conducting training for management and staff, and having annual focus groups in each program office.

"It has been two weeks since the Administrator’s Listening Session but, to date, management has not provided any type of communications to the employees," James said.

"Management’s continued silence is being viewed by employees as supporting racism," he said. "AFGE is asking that management at least announce what took place during the Listening Session and next steps."

Both James and Al-Mudallal said they were not aware of any more racist incidents occurring at EPA since the ones reported in the fall of last year. But the union officials said the agency has not done enough in response to those incidents alone.

James has been left unimpressed and said more training is needed along with more extensive communication with employees.

"These are all ideas. They are all in developmental stages," James said. "For me, this is like being hit by a car and they’re in the back, writing response plans instead of going and giving immediate medical attention."

In addition, a coalition of EPA employee unions wants to meet with Wheeler to discuss race. In an April 18 letter obtained by E&E News, the unions asked the administrator to continue the dialogue with more than two unions at the agency.

"Generally, we believe that the March 21, 2019, listening session with you was productive," the letter said. "However, we would like to further engage you on this issue."

The unions proposed "a future meeting on the topic of race with you on some date within the next 30 days."

"We want each of the five unions at EPA (AFGE, NTEU, [Engineers and Scientists of California], [National Association of Government Employees], [National Association of Independent Labor]) to be represented. We would like to discuss not only how employees Agency-wide feel about the race-based incidents that have recently occurred in Headquarters, but also ideas for moving the culture at EPA toward greater equity and respect."

Stephanie Doolan, chairwoman of the union coalition at EPA who signed the letter, said a Wheeler aide acknowledged receipt of the letter and said they would get back to her. No meeting has been scheduled yet, she said.

"I’m hopeful the administrator will take us up on this offer because there is a lot to be learned from the different perspectives from the various geographic locations across EPA," Doolan said.

She said what prompted the letter were the racist incidents reported on last fall. Unions across EPA wanted to be part of the conversation as the agency looks to respond.

"We felt it was important for us to speak up, to have a broader discussion about race, because we felt we had some good ideas about how to move our culture forward to a more respectful workplace and greater diversity," Doolan said.

Doolan also said she is a member of EPA’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, which includes EPA employees and officials. The group has begun meeting monthly, and the racist incidents reported on last year have been a topic of discussion.

"The objective of meeting monthly is to identify some key concerns, to address not only the incidents that happened but advance the discussion forward to make the workplace more inclusive and respectful," Doolan said.

Union officials said employees are still upset by the disturbing messages found last year. Al-Mudallal said EPA should consider training, on-site counseling and developing procedures on how to handle such incidents in the future.

"I know employees are still concerned about what happened," Al-Mudallal said.

James agreed with that assessment.

"Right now, people feel abandoned," James said. "I believe EPA employees deserve better."