The reopening process, a source of tension between the agency and its union, is a “significant challenge” for EPA, said the report.
After maximizing teleworking during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency should review the disparities among location-specific reopening plans before entering the final reopening phase, a watchdog reported on Monday.
The EPA inspector general published a report about the initial reopening phases for the EPA’s primary 13 locations nationwide where the majority of staff work, which include the headquarters in Washington, D.C.; Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina; the Office of Administration and Resources Management in Cincinnati; and 10 regional offices. The Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget issued joint guidance in April that gave federal agencies discretion and flexibility in returning employees to workplaces during the pandemic. The EPA then issued four iterations of its own guidance between May and July––which reflected the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines–– for each location to use in developing its own plans. The IG said it would take up this review in July amid tensions between the EPA and its employee union over workplace safety conditions during the pandemic.
“Providing a safe working environment for employees returning to their physical work locations is a significant challenge facing the EPA,” said the IG. “Although the location-specific reopening plans we reviewed incorporate elements of the CDC’s interim guidance, the specific health and safety measures outlined in the plans often vary. While some differences in the reopening plans could be warranted based on local conditions, the EPA should ensure that such differences do not place employees at an increased risk of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 disease merely as a result of their work location.”
Such differences were in respect to cleaning procedures, face coverings, social distancing, public transportation, ventilation systems and interactions with non-EPA employees. For example, 10 of the 13 plans addressed how to provide sufficient ventilation, but only one addressed enforcement of the requirement to wear face coverings, according to the report.
The IG recommended that the assistant administrator for the Office Mission Support determine whether or not the location-specific plans should be amended to fix the differences in health and safety protocols, as the EPA enters phase three of reopening. The EPA concurred with the recommendation.
The review was based on EPA’s status as of August 7. At the time, two facilities were in phase zero, eight were in phase one, two were in phase two and one was closed. The EPA did not respond for comment about an update by the time of this article’s publication.
All of these locations are now in phase two, except for region 7 (covering Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska), which was still in phase one as of Dec. 1, according to Bethany Dreyfus, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1236, which represents EPA employees in region 9 (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Islands).
The watchdog said it would continue to review the EPA’s reopenings as the locations head into the final phase three, when workplace operations go back to normal, with public health protocols. Meanwhile, the coronavirus is still raging throughout the country and public health experts are warning that travel and gatherings for the holidays will lead to even more spikes.
After announcing the review on July 1, the IG said it received eight hotline complaints and 12 letters from EPA staff and union representatives, many of which were about the EPA’s criteria to determine when to bring employees back to workplaces. “However, this report addresses the consistency of the agency’s reopening plans with governmentwide guidance on reopening the workplace, not the criteria that the EPA uses to decide when to reopen a location or advance a location to the next reopening phase,” the watchdog noted.
On October 5, 695 of 750 members from various unions that represent EPA employees (92.7%) voted for “no confidence” in EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and other agency leadership for bringing employees back into offices too soon, which they claimed put them at risk for contracting the coronavirus.
“The inspector general’s investigation of the EPA’s reopening process echoes the outcry of EPA employees from coast to coast: the agency’s reopening plan just doesn’t make sense. Not only does the EPA lack any sort of coherent agency-wide standards for health and safety, but the agency is putting forward location-based reopening plans that are confusing and inconsistent,” said Gary Morton, president of the AFGE chapter that represents almost 8,000 of EPA’s 14,172 total employees, in a statement to Government Executive. “We’ll continue to push for a mission-based approach that prioritizes public health and worker safety as we have done since the start of the pandemic — it’s what science and public health demand.”
Update: This story has been updated to reflect the operating status of regional EPA offices.