EEOC Delays Employee Office Reentry Amid Omicron Surge
The civil rights agency originally planned to bring bargaining unit employees back in February, but union officials said management did not properly consult them.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission became the latest federal agency to delay plans to bring employees back to official worksites last week over concerns about the surging Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Last November, EEOC Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows announced to staff that employees would begin to return to the office in three stages early in 2022: senior staff and managers would return Jan. 18, other supervisors would return on Jan. 31, and bargaining unit and other frontline employees would come back on Feb. 14.
But on Jan. 7, Burrows sent a new email to staff delaying reentry indefinitely, citing the surging Omicron variant and concerns from employees.
“Many of you are understandably concerned about the Omicron variant, which emerged after the initial announcement of the target dates for EEOC’s reentry,” she wrote. “While the latest data suggest that, on the whole, Omicron’s effects are less severe than those of earlier variants, it is also highly transmissible. Under the circumstances, we have decided to delay the reentry to our offices. Therefore, employees will not be required to begin physically reentering EEOC workplaces on the dates initially projected.”
The American Federation of Government Employees Council 216, which represents EEOC employees, applauded the decision, and said the union hopes the delay will lead the agency to work more collaboratively with labor representatives. The union filed two unfair labor practices against the agency following the November announcement of reentry dates, one for failing to engage the union prior to the announcement and another for failing to fulfill information requests ahead of the union’s initial deadline to submit reentry bargaining proposals in early December.
Council President Rachel Shonfield said that the recent rift between labor and management at the agency is uncharacteristic of EEOC, which she said has traditionally had a very productive labor-management relationship. She said the initial reentry announcement last year caused consternation among the workforce, particularly since it did not address how the agency might expand telework beyond the eight days per pay period maximum that was in place prior to the pandemic.
“The bargaining unit employees were calling union officials immediately and texting and emailing,” Shonfield said. “Everyone was very upset and wanted to know where these dates came from and how this plan would keep them safe.”
EEOC spokesman James Ryan said the question of how the agency might adjust its permanent telework program following the COVID-19 pandemic “has yet to be determined.”
Shonfield said the original reentry timeline, combined with the agency’s lack of detail on how reentry would work aside from the now-postponed target dates, made bargaining over implementation unnecessarily difficult. She said she hopes the delay will bring the agency to the table to work collaboratively not only on reentry plans and telework, but to ensure that employees and members of the public can remain safe once offices reopen.
“We really urge the agency to use this opportunity to change their posture on bargaining obligations, and we’d like to start negotiating with no lines in the sand,” she said. “We want the agency to get this right. It’s not bargaining for the sake of bargaining: we provide the frontline perspective so that this can be done safely, since there are people at headquarters who don’t necessarily know what an intake office looks like or its size.”
Ryan said that EEOC is “strongly committed” to bargaining in good faith with AFGE, although he noted that the agency has not yet completed its reentry plan.
“The EEOC’s COVID coordination team is closely monitoring pandemic conditions, and is currently in the process of drafting a proposed reentry plan and, once cleared by the chair of the EEOC, will present it for review and comment,” he said. “The union will be offered every opportunity to bargain the impact and implementation of the initial reentry plan . . . We look forward to working with the union to ensure the safe return of the EEOC’s workforce to our headquarters and field offices across the country so that we can restore greater public access to our critical services.”