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EPA Workers Approach Contract Talks With ‘Guarded Optimism’

Dec. 12, 2019, 11:00 AM

The union that represents more than half of the EPA’s 14,000 full-time workers is guardedly hopeful that labor talks starting next month will undo changes that some employees say could push them to leave the agency.

The American Federation of Government Employees and the Environmental Protection Agency will sit down to hammer out a new deal, agency chief Andrew Wheeler said in an email to staff last week. The parties have committed to wrap up bargaining by April 15.

More than a dozen EPA employees told Bloomberg Environment the current contract—which took effect in July—reduced telecommuting, restricted flexible scheduling, and imposed new rules on union grievances.

The EPA says while it still allows telecommuting, it needs veteran workers to spend more time in the office to help mentor younger employees, especially while the agency is already losing many seasoned workers due to retirements.

The work-from-home issue and all of the disputed contract terms will be on the table in the new round of talks, Wheeler wrote. He also said the EPA “remains dedicated to bargaining in good faith with its unions.”

The AFGE, which represents about 7,500 EPA employees, says the current contract was imposed on its members July 8 without the union’s input or consent. But the EPA says it was the union that cut off talks and forced its hand.

The EPA has also said the July contract only reflects the agency’s opening bid in what was meant to be a negotiation.

Work From Home Tensions

Some employees said that if the new work provisions remain in effect, they would think about leaving the agency, which already has its fewest full-time workers since 1987.

The previous contract allowed up to two days of regular telecommuting per week, plus additional days at management’s discretion, said Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 and president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago.

Under the new EPA contract, employees get one day of telecommuting per week, plus extra days that are “granted in extremely rare circumstances,” Cantello said.

One long-time EPA employee in Region 9 in San Francisco said the change requires him to commute 90 minutes into the city four times a week. He and his wife recently bought a house in a different county, partly on the expectation that he could work from home at least twice a week.

“I’ve already considered leaving,” he said. “If this continues, I would look for things where I wouldn’t have to spend so much time sitting on a bus.”

But the EPA is not unique in the federal government in scaling back telework.

On Dec. 9, a group of 44 Democratic senators called on the Social Security Administration to reinstate its old telecommuting provisions, saying that agency’s policy shift “will harm productivity by demoralizing employees who must scramble to make alternate childcare and other arrangements, encouraging early retirements, and undermining efforts to recruit promising new workers.”

‘Mentorship Opportunities’

A management-side EPA official familiar with the labor talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the notion that the change is imposing a significant hardship “is a little bit questionable,” because the contract only reduces telecommuting from two days to one.

The agency’s leadership has also been pushing for employees to spend more time in the office, especially given current retirement rates and the need to train new staff, the official said.

Wheeler noted at a recent forum that the EPA is “barely treading water” in its attempts to replace outgoing staff. He said about 40% of the EPA’s workforce is eligible to retire over the next five years.

“You don’t get the same mentorship opportunities for juniors” when senior staffers aren’t physically present, the management-side official said. Moreover, the telecommuting changes were only an opening proposal from the EPA, according to the management-side official, adding that the agency still promotes telecommuting.

Whistleblower Worries

Another worker complaint is that most employees can no longer submit grievances about performance reviews, raising the possibility that whistleblowers have little recourse if they are retaliated against with poor performance reviews, according to several AFGE officers and stewards.

The contract also took away a disciplinary step called a performance action plan that preceded a more formal performance improvement plan, according to a Region 8 steward.

Now, managers can immediately initiate a performance improvement plan, which lays out specific actions the employee must complete before being removed or demoted, a union steward said.

“We can’t really help protect people as efficiently,” the steward said. “They can basically put you right on a performance improvement plan, and if you haven’t improved within 30 days, they can fire you.”

The EPA management official agreed that the new grievance process is “much more limited.” But the official also said the new procedure is consistent with a trio of White House executive orders issued in May 2018 on collective bargaining agreements with federal unions.

Employees still have due process rights if they’re removed for performance or conduct if they believe the penalty is unreasonable or inconsistent. Workers can still appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the Office of Special Counsel, the official said.

Further, EPA was one of only two federal agencies that allowed performance action plans, according to the official. A 2017 Office of Management and Budget memo also called on federal agencies to remove all barriers to addressing poor performance.

Flex Time

Some workers also have complained about flexible time rules since July.

Under the previous contract, workers had a two-hour window before and after their scheduled start and end times to come and go as they wished, provided they met required total hours for each two-week period, said Sherrie Kinard, a physical scientist in Region 8.

That window has been narrowed to half an hour. Kinard said the rules have made it harder for her to get home in emergencies to care for her two children with special needs.

An EPA official said that flexible time rules used to be determined locally, but the current contract sets a national standard for work schedules. While some of the agency’s regions lost flexibility, overall the EPA now provides “more flexibility than we ever had,” the official said.

Both sides appeared to welcome a resumption of talks.

“People around me are reacting with very cautious optimism” to the upcoming talks, according to an EPA employee in Region 5 in Chicago, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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