This story has been updated to include comment from the Agriculture Department.
Chearice Vaughn, who works at the Agriculture Department headquarters’ South Building in Washington, arrived at her job one morning last month and noticed a "Do Not Enter" sign, warning of unspecified renovations that would occur in an office that adjoined her own. The employee of the department’s Office of Rural Development went about her day.
But a week later, when she arrived at work, she found that the work was far more disruptive than the original sign implied.
“I believe it was a Tuesday—April 17—and when I got to work, the door had been taken off completely, and there was a plastic covering over the door with a tear, a pinhole poke at the top,” Vaughn said. “There was this super strong smell of chemicals in the hallway, and eventually it permeated into my office, because there’s another door that connects my office directly to the one next door, and it’s right next to my desk . . . I knew immediately that they were doing lead paint abatement, but they hadn’t notified anyone or said anything.”
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Vaughn, an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3870 representative who suffers from asthma, said that later that day, she started feeling tightness in her chest, so she took sick leave to go to the doctor’s office, where she received two breathing treatments as a result of the fumes. She and other Agriculture employees decried the agency’s belated and tepid response to a workplace hazard, which is complicated by a recent decision to significantly curb telework.
On the following day, Vaughn said she requested that she be relocated away from the renovations, but it took multiple days to find a suitable office.
“The first room they told me was an option literally was stacked up from the floor to my belly button with boxes,” she said. “I was told that I could move the boxes, but I refused, so of course I had to take more sick leave [until a proper location had been found].”
Before Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue moved to reduce workers’ ability to telework from nearly full time down to once per week, Vaughn worked from home two days a week. Since the new policy was unveiled, Vaughn and others have filed a labor grievance against the department over the change. Until the grievance is resolved, she must commute to the office every day.
Vaughn said that management has been reluctant to grant her colleagues the ability to telework, even as renovations and lead abatement continue.
“Because I’m not teleworking, I had to take sick leave, and I filed a worker’s compensation claim to get my leave restored,” she said. “But there’s a young lady in the office on the other side of mine and she has a telework agreement. She was eventually allowed to telework one additional day, although beyond that I’m not sure. They just seem very hesitant even in these extreme situations to allow people to utilize telework the way that they should.”
In a statement, the Agriculture Department said it is committed to providing a safe working environment and denied the workers’ allegations.
“Rural Development national office renovations have been ongoing and proper notifications were made to personnel from supervisors,” the agency said.
Another USDA employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said the lead abatement activities have acutely exacerbated an existing medical condition. Even after notifying superiors about the extent of the problem, the employee was only allowed to telework until a new workspace in the building could be found.
“I had to check in pretty much on a daily basis, and I eventually had to find a new office myself,” the employee told Government Executive. “It was overwhelming. I was concerned about my health, and then I got concerned about my job. What if I couldn’t get ahold of my manager right away? What if they didn’t see that I had logged on?”
The employee speculated that if this incident had happened before the telework policy change, managers would have been far more flexible with those who encountered health problems.
“I think it wouldn’t have been as hard for them to allow me—once I told them my concern, they would have been willing to say, ‘OK, until we do A, B, C, you can go ahead and telework,’ ” the employee said. “It was something they might have suggested, instead of being something that I needed to demand.”
USDA said officials worked to accommodate employees negatively affected by the renovations, including finding alternative office spaces, “hoteling stations” or ad hoc telework.
“Under the new telework policy, managers have the flexibility to allow telework beyond one day a week under special circumstances like this,” USDA wrote. “In addition to providing notice to employees, a meeting was held between management, union representatives and OSHA also was held.”
Agriculture employees said the lead abatement issue is just one example of how the new telework policy has strained employee-manager relations and eroded morale and engagement. A second USDA employee wishing to remain anonymous said the new policy has completely upended work-life balance.
“I now have a 14-hour day,” the employee said. “It takes me almost an hour and a half to get to work, between driving from my house to the train, so it’s almost two hours going and two hours coming back. And then I’m doing a 10-hour day so I can still be home two days a week. Before the change, I was doing an eight-hour day from home, and they would probably be getting closer to 10 or 12 hours because I wasn’t exhausted from commuting all day.”
Department officials have shown no signs of reversing the policy. Juan McCoy, president of AFSCME Local 3976, which represents employees in the Foreign Agricultural Service, said the agency has not yet imposed the new telework restrictions on that branch, but collective bargaining agreement negotiations on the matter are planned for the coming months.
“They are very adamant that they intend to implement it to its fullest capacity,” McCoy said. “We had very strong language in the CBA that prevents that right now, but from my understanding, they plan to try to force negotiations by next February to try to eliminate all protections that we have as it relates to telework and alternate work schedules.”
The force with which agency leadership is pursuing its goals to roll back telework baffles McCoy, particularly in light of its stated justification of improving customer service.
“I work at an agency that deals with international trade and development, and our customers are all spread out throughout the world,” he said. “So most of the work is being done on the computer or by telephone to begin with. One of the problems is simply that managers have not been effectively trained in how to manage a remote workforce.”