The EPA’s various office closures and moves under earlier presidents aren’t slowing down under the Biden administration, distressing union officials who hoped new Administrator Michael Regan would rethink them.
The employees say the moves threaten the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission, disrupt workers’ lives, and in at least one case could increase their exposure to the coronavirus.
“When Biden was inaugurated and issued his EO on protecting the federal workforce, we all thought that would change how these activities were conducted,” said Bethany Dreyfus, an EPA lawyer and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1236. “It’s extremely frustrating to feel like we’re in a very similar place to where we were before this administration came in.”
Those moves include relocating the agency’s Houston lab to Ada, Okla.; consolidating operations in five Las Vegas offices into two; and merging a lab in Richmond, Calif., to an existing office in Corvallis, Ore.
Complaints in Houston
Several employees stressed that they trust Regan, who has repeatedly said he wants to repair management’s frayed relationship with the rank and file. Union leaders said Regan is too new in the job, and too far removed from staffers’ day-to-day experience across the EPA’s many offices, to understand the scope of the problem.
Nevertheless, Justin Chen, an EPA environmental engineer, said he doesn’t understand why the agency is still plowing ahead with moving the Houston lab 400 miles away to Ada.
The move hurts EPA’s mission because the Houston locale makes it a prime spot for processing samples from the Gulf Coast, some of which are time-sensitive, he said. Many long-time EPA employees also have ties to Houston and don’t want to move to Oklahoma, said Chen, who serves as president of AFGE Local 1003.
“You don’t want to lose hundreds of years’ worth of experience from older employees who will be forced to retire,” Chen said.
AFGE President Gary Morton wrote to then-Acting Administrator Jane Nishida on March 1 asking for clarity on office closures and moves across the nation “in light of the change of administration.”
In response, Philip Brown, who directs the labor and employee relations division at the EPA’s Office of Human Resources, told the union in a March 16 letter that, while the consolidations “are difficult for staff,” the agency would work closely with the unions going forward.
An EPA spokesman said the agency is simply following previous administrations’ directions to save taxpayer dollars by shrinking the federal footprint. The Obama administration told agencies in 2010 to make better use of their space, including by consolidating offices.
But Dreyfus said continuing the closures and moves “doesn’t reflect any of the priorities that we’ve heard from the administration—listening to the scientists, valuing the experts in the agency, and paying attention to environmental justice priorities and keeping the resources where the impacts are.”
Coronavirus Concerns in Vegas
The AFGE says the EPA is also ignoring an agreement designed to protect employees, construction workers, and landlord representatives from the coronavirus as the agency works to consolidate operations in five Las Vegas buildings into two.
The memorandum of understanding was hammered out because the union didn’t feel the EPA’s general coronavirus guidance addresses situations in which non-EPA workers—such as contractors—are in the workplace, according to Dreyfus. It lays out provisions on personal protective equipment, occupancy rates, sign-in sheets, and notification about changes to the work.
But workers aren’t consistently signing in, and the agency created an accelerated work schedule that doesn’t align with the one agreed to during negotiations with the union, according to an EPA employee in the Las Vegas office who declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly.
The EPA spokesman said the agency is complying with the MOU and that it “can find no evidence of an increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the building.” He also encouraged the AFGE to bring forward data suggesting otherwise.
Moreover, EPA officials regularly review coronavirus protocols and establish new ones when offices are moving locations, including Las Vegas, the spokesman said.
‘Flat Out Lying’
But Karen Goldberg, an EPA attorney and AFGE steward, said the EPA is “flat out lying” when it says it’s in compliance with the agreement.
“They never even sent the executed agreement and schedule to the relevant managers, and the person who came from headquarters to oversee the work this month was the one who directed use of the faster schedule,” she said.
The EPA also didn’t notify the union of any changes to the schedule in the negotiated agreement, Goldberg alleged.
In response, the EPA spokesman said the agreement was “briefly delayed” by an agency head review process. After it cleared the review, the agreement “was shared with all relevant parties, including the union,” he said.
Some accelerations to the schedule were discussed, but the schedule hasn’t been accelerated, according to the spokesman. Nevertheless, the agreement allows for schedule changes with notice to the union, he said.
To make matters worse, the Las Vegas office includes the EPA’s National Center for Radiation Field Operations, which responds to radiological emergencies—a team whose services would be vital to the nation in case of a nuclear accident, according to Dreyfus.
The Las Vegas employee said he expects the move to knock that team’s IT equipment offline for as many as three or four weeks.
In 2013, the EPA Office of Inspector General found that the EPA had some 430,000 square feet of underused space that, if released, could save up to $21.6 million per year.
But the OIG also said in December 2020 that the agency needed to do a better job of managing its lab consolidations and keep track of how much money it was spending on them. The EPA broadly agreed with the report.
Congress also passed a bill in 2016 establishing a new panel telling agencies to recommend properties they could transfer or consolidate.