EPA Watchdog To Review the Agency’s Reopening Process

The return to offices during the pandemic has been a source of tension between the agency and its union.

The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general is reviewing the agency's plans to return workers to offices amid tensions between the agency and its union over workplace safety during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlined in an all-employee message on June 1 that the agency’s phased return to offices, following maximum telework during the coronavirus pandemic, “is both measured and deliberate to minimize risk to your health” and will occur on a “rolling” basis. So far, the national capital offices in Washington, D.C., and Potomac Yard, Virginia, and all regional offices––except for Regions 6 (Pacific Southwest) and 9 (South Central)––have started the first reopening phase, in accordance with federal guidelines, an EPA spokesperson told Government Executive on Monday. However, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents almost 8,000 of EPA’s 14,172 total employees, has been calling on the agency to cease its reopening, claiming it has not been transparent in its reopening calculations and, therefore, is putting employees at risk. 

The IG said on July 1 that it is reviewing EPA’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as employees return to their offices and its compliance with the White House “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.” The IG will work with staff at EPA’s headquarters in Washington and the Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina (which houses 15 EPA offices), the Office of Administration and Resources Management’s Cincinnati office and 10 regional offices nationwide. The watchdog asked the agency to provide a list of its facilities, their locations and number of staff at each; copies of all reopening plans and points of contact at each location by July 10.  

“AFGE welcomes the IG’s investigation into EPA’s rushed reopening process. EPA has not utilized a national plan for reopening, which has resulted in various – but always inadequate – health and safety provisions in different EPA work locations across the country,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley in an email to the press on July 2. “Employee health and safety should be the number one priority of the agency, not scoring political points for rushing employees back to offices without adequate health and safety considerations in place.” AFGE previously said in June that the EPA did not negotiate with the union on the phased reopening plan. 

Meanwhile, the agency contends that the union has been misrepresenting its communications and said EPA is taking a responsible approach to bringing employees back.

“Despite the numerous briefings, demonstrations and resources provided by the agency, AFGE conveys ignorance about the agency’s plans for reopening. Most concerning, the union’s persistent and recent misrepresentations are stoking fear in employees about returning to the workplace, wrote Nicole Patterson, acting director of EPA’s Labor and Employee Relations Division on June 24. “Administrator Wheeler has repeatedly communicated an extensive, transparent, data driven, measured and deliberate approach to returning to agency offices and facilities that ensures our employees’ health and safety.”

Patterson  also noted that EPA created a “facility status dashboard,” to which employees have access, with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources to help regional leaders make decisions about reopenings.  

EPA is one of several agencies grappling with policies around bringing employees back to offices despite the emergence of new virus epicenters in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, and the daily record-breaking numbers of  new cases confirmed. Although the review was “self-initiated,” the IG noted it was one of 24 IG offices the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Government Operations Subcommittee asked to review agencies’ return-to-office plans.

“Our federal workforce has demonstrated that it can continue to work effectively and serve this nation—even in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances,” wrote Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., subcommittee chairman on June 15. “We need to ensure that premature or misguided efforts to return to offices will not undercut efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and put federal employees and their families in danger.”