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EPA Will Return to a ‘Hybrid’ Office in May

The agency and its union reached an agreement this month to begin bringing union workers back to facilities in May, albeit with expanded telework and remote work options.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the American Federation of Government Employees this month reached an agreement to begin bringing employees back to traditional work sites in May, with new telework and remote work policies expanding their availability from pre-pandemic levels.

The agreement, signed March 4, brings back bargaining unit employees in a phased approach beginning May 2. For the first week, union employees must report to the office one day, and for the following pay period, they will come in twice per pay period. For the third pay period of the process, employees will come in three days, and “normal” schedules will return in the fourth pay period.

But “normal” schedules aren’t simply a reversion to pre-pandemic policies. The agreement highlights a new hybrid work environment for EPA, bolstered by new union agreements on telework and remote work, negotiated by the agency and AFGE last fall. The telework policy allows employees up to four days a week from home and allows for full time telework on a situational basis, pending managerial approval, while remote workers would only be expected to report to a traditional work site on special occasions.

Additionally, the return to office agreement includes a number of safety measures, including requiring masks at EPA offices in locations with “high” community transmission levels of COVID-19 and allowing managers to approve situational telework both if an office or if an employee is in a jurisdiction with high transmission levels.

“So if an individual says, ‘I’m from Region 3 [in Philadelphia], but I live in Cape May County, [N.J.],’ so if Cape May County’s numbers were high, I could use that as justification to request situational telework,” said Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Council 238, which represents EPA workers. “That’s another thing that we consider a real advantage for employees to help them prioritize their own health and safety.”

AFGE pushed for EPA to provide handheld carbon dioxide monitors as a way to monitor air flow at agency facilities, since a lack of air circulation increases the chances of COVID-19 spreading. Although the agency rebuffed that proposal, the union still was able to secure a provision requiring the agency to perform carbon dioxide monitoring upon request in the event of an in-person meeting of 20 people or more.

Powell said trying to nail down a policy that both works now and can scale up safety measures in the event of another flare-up of COVID-19 cases made negotiating the return to office both frustrating and rewarding.

“There were several points in our negotiations where we had to step back because the CDC guidance was constantly changing, and then [the White House Safer Federal Workforce Task Force] was changing,” she said. “So there were a lot of instances where we thought we had agreement, but then it turned out to be a moving target. We feel really proud of the agreement we reached, but we just had to make sure our negotiating team was cognizant of the fact that a lot of this discussion was a snapshot of today . . . It was a learning experience for both sides.”

Powell applauded the more collaborative negotiating environment with management than Powell saw during the Trump administration. But she noted that it’s one thing to negotiate an agreement, and it can be quite another when individual managers go to implement that agreement. She said the union has already begun fielding complaints from employees about how the agency is handling their telework requests ahead of the return to office, although many of them are still being vetted.

“I would be lying if I said everything was sunshine and rainbows,” Powell said. “We can come up with great agreements, but then it comes down to how the agency actually implements them, and right now I’m not thrilled with what we’re seeing.”