EPA employees and AFGE voted to approve a four-year contract with the agency, including some protections against potential political retaliation by a future administration.

EPA employees and AFGE voted to approve a four-year contract with the agency, including some protections against potential political retaliation by a future administration. STEFANI REYNOLDS / Getty Images

EPA union ratifies contract to protect employees’ scientific integrity

The deal also locks in a maximum of four days per week of telework, though labor leaders said that the agency will likely want to renegotiate the benefit after two years.

The nation’s largest federal employee union has ratified a new contract with the Environmental Protection Agency with new measures aimed at protecting the agency’s workforce from political interference.

EPA employees, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, voted to approve the new four-year deal last week. The contract’s ratification marks the first full deal between AFGE Council 238 and the agency after the Trump administration unilaterally imposed a contract on the workforce in 2019.

Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704, which represents EPA employees in the Chicago region, and Council 238’s legislative and political coordinator, told Government Executive that the Trump era—and the possibility that the former president could again be elected this fall—loomed large over negotiations.

“Our entire contract was taken away by the Trump administration, so we are very concerned that they will, again, target EPA employees for retribution for doing their jobs,” Cantello said. “That’s why we tried to take the determination as to whether or not science is being practiced out of the hands of the agency.”

A new provision in the parties’ contract, which is now subject to the 60-day agency head review process, creates a new appeals process for employees disciplined over what they view as retaliation for pursuing science-related work. In those cases, appeals would go to an independent arbitrator for review.

“If the agency is completely captured by an administration that is hostile to science, there would be nowhere for an employee to go if they’re retaliated against for speaking up for science or scientific integrity," Cantello said. “What the [contract] article allows is for an independent arbiter to find whether or not the agency did that, and would order the agency to take certain actions to stop that from happening.”

The union pursued the provision with increased urgency given former President Trump’s vow to restore Schedule F, an abortive effort to transfer tens of thousands of federal workers in “policy-related” positions across government into the excepted service, effectively making them at-will employees.

Cantello also cited Project 2025, a joint transition plan cultivated by the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups that is supportive of Schedule F and proposes a radical reorganization of EPA and its mission.

Cantello said it was important to codify new protections against these threats in the contract, though she acknowledged that, like the Office of Personnel Management’s efforts to make it more difficult to reinstate Schedule F, that it isn’t foolproof.

"If they’re just going to disregard the rules, there isn’t going to be anything to protect anyone—not even just scientists, but anyone,” she said. “Sure, that could definitely happen. That’s a concern for every federal employee, that they don’t know what [a second Trump] administration would put into action against feds.”

The new contract also solidifies a generous telework policy—EPA employees with telework agreements would be able to work remotely eight days per biweekly pay period—and codifies remote work, a workplace arrangement where an employee can work entirely from home. The provision marks an increase from the Trump-imposed contract, which allowed only two days per pay period of telework, but remains in line with a sidebar agreement reached after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cantello said that though union members are happy with the new telework provision, they know that they’ll have a fight on their hands to maintain it.

“In the contract, there’s a reopener clause for three articles to be renegotiated at the two-year mark,” she said. “The agency let us know that telework was one of the provisions that they would want to reopen. So that makes us believe that it is endangered and we’ll have to negotiate it again soon.”

The contract also requires EPA to set up a number of pilot programs aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion within the agency’s workforce. Management and labor officials will work jointly to choose which proposals to pursue.

“We’re very excited about that,” Cantello said. “In the STEM fields, people of color aren’t represented in the way they are in the general populace . . . The pilots can be as simple as making sure that the hiring panel is diverse, like including at least one person of color on the hiring panel. Or, and this is a common practice outside of government, not allowing the panel to see the name [of a job candidate]. Those are just two we thought of, but there are others that we have since researched. The agency will submit their own pilot program ideas to us, and we’ll review them and together decide which to go with.”