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EPA Workers Prepare for Return-to-Work Talks Amid Deep Concerns

July 3, 2020, 12:20 PM

The EPA’s biggest union will enter into bargaining with the agency July 13 for a week of talks about rapidly developing plans to reopen offices, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.

The negotiations will land shortly before many Environmental Protection Agency employees are expected to be called back to their offices, which AFGE employees from across the nation rebuked on a Thursday evening Zoom call with reporters.

The talks were supposed to start July 6, but were pushed back a week, Joyce Howell, an EPA staffer in Philadelphia and vice president of AFGE Local 3631, said on the call.

The EPA has consistently said it’s opening offices carefully and monitoring local data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, and other sources.

But during the Zoom call, EPA workers said they believe it’s still too dangerous to be in offices or on public transit, and that the agency hasn’t provided convincing evidence that reopening is safe.

‘Stir Further Confusion’

Brian Kelly, an EPA employee and AFGE steward at Local 704 in Ann Arbor, Mich., said his office is a very small, modular space with 16 people “jammed” together. The seating arrangement makes it impossible to maintain social distance, Kelly said, turning the office into “basically a Covid incubator.”

But James Hewitt, an EPA spokesman, responded: “The fact AFGE is holding a press conference on the late evening before a holiday weekend to stir further confusion and share baseless accusations does their members a grave disservice.”

Loreen Targos, an AFGE Local 704 steward and EPA employee in Chicago, responded: “We the workers—many of us biological scientists—spoke at the press conference in a desperate fight to have self-determination over our health and safety.”

Eight of the EPA’s 10 regional offices and the Washington, D.C., region, where its headquarters are based, are only in the first phase of President Donald Trump’s three-step reopening plan, Hewitt said.

And no timetable has been set for a Phase 3 reopening for any office, “as stated multiple times and demonstrated by our actions, as we follow the guidance of public health officials and the data,” Hewitt said. “We have made this clear multiple times, so either the union leadership is intentionally misleading their membership or they are not reading what we have provided to them.”

Social Distancing Fears

Some EPA employees said they were troubled by the lack of a contingency plan if coronavirus case rates spike in their areas.

And to Felicia Chase, a staffer in Region 5 and an officer with Local 704, the reopening plans don’t take racial justice into account. Black people are dying at three times the rate of White people due to the coronavirus in Chase’s hometown of Chicago, she said, so forcing Chicagoans to return to work puts them at greater risk.

“That alone goes against every environmental justice policy that they create,” Chase said, referring to the EPA.

And several staffers, such as Tad Wysor, an EPA employee in Region 5 and vice president of AFGE Local 3907, said over the last few months employees have proven their ability to work effectively from home.

On Wednesday, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General said it will launch an investigation into how the agency plans to safeguard employees during the pandemic.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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