Chicago-area EPA employees say productivity has remained high with remote work. 

Chicago-area EPA employees say productivity has remained high with remote work.  Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency Workers File Suit Over Remote Work Policies

EPA workers in the agency's largest region allege that their remote work requests have been unfairly denied.

Environmental Protection Agency workers in the midwest are suing the agency, seeking disclosure of documents under a Freedom of Information Act request. The document request is related to the agency’s remote work policies for employees of the EPA’s Region 5 Office and its application to specific employees.

Region 5 is the largest of the EPA’s 10 national regions, and includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

These EPA employees, represented by American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, allege in a lawsuit filed on Oct. 20 that requests to work remotely have been unfairly denied to Region 5 workers even though productivity has remained high with remote work. 

“Unfortunately, during the last year, Region 5 employees have faced unfair denials of their requests for remote work compared to what we are seeing nationwide,” said Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704. “To try to get some clarity on the issue, we submitted FOIA requests in May 2022, to get more information about internal remote work discussions, specific denials of remote work for Region 5 employees, and remote work that had been approved for other similarly situated EPA workers. We have not received the data we need and to which we are entitled. EPA’s ‘estimated date of completion’ of the most crucial FOIA requests is months away.”

The lawsuit declares that the EPA is wrongfully withholding documents that were requested by FOIA request, and is seeking an injunction that would award all wrongfully withheld documents.

EPA workers worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and union officials says the agency processed more environmental permit applications in the first year of the pandemic than in a standard year. The Region 5 EPA workers allege that many positions are not dependent on working in person, and that remote work should continue.

“Other EPA offices across the country have not been denying remote work requests like we’ve been seeing here in the Midwest,” Cantello said. “The union originally bargained the right to remote work with EPA to protect members and their families during this pandemic, so we need to understand why the Region 5 management is denying applications and withholding documents that the union needs to examine EPA decision-making on remote work under FOIA.”

The union is being represented in the lawsuit by Hudson B. Kingston, a litigation and policy attorney at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 

 “This episode illustrates that EPA is often better at preaching transparency than practicing it,” Kingston said.

EPA officials didn't respond to a request for comment by publication deadline.