Bloomberg: EPA to Vastly Widen Telecommuting Rights for Union Employees

By Stephen Lee
December 1, 2021

The EPA has reached three tentative agreements with its biggest union on telecommuting, remote work, and work schedules—a significant win for workers who have long pressed for more flexibility and control over their work-life balance.

The pacts also will help the Environment Protection Agency fulfill its mission by preventing skilled employees from drifting away to other jobs, according to Joyce Howell, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3631 and the union’s chief negotiator.

“I think this administration is getting that we are a great asset of the U.S.,” Howell said Wednesday. “We’re going to be able to attract and keep the best people.”

The agreements must be ratified by the AFGE’s presidents and signed by EPA leadership, but those actions are considered pro forma exercises. Robert Coomber, the EPA’s national chief negotiator, has already signed the tentative deals.

Doubling Telecommuting

One of the agreements doubles the number of days employees can telecommute, from two days a week to four. A separate agreement introduces the concept of remote work, under which employees can designate a location—including their own home—that’s not an EPA facility as their full-time official workplace.

The remote work agreement essentially means AFGE bargaining unit members may almost never have to report to their offices.

The third tentative agreement expands the window of time in which employees can do their required eight hours of work. The existing contract sets a range from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., but the new agreement widens it to 5:00 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Workers’ “core hours”—the block of time during which they must be on the job—will be condensed to a window of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The current contract requires staff to work from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. from Monday to Friday.

“This gives a lot more flexibility to employees to get done everything they need to get done during the day,” said Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704 and a member of the negotiating team for the work schedule agreement. “People can have a life that they can live outside of work.”

The agreements also describe which kinds of work qualify, based on job function, meaning the decisions aren’t based on a manager’s discretion. If a worker is denied privileges laid out in the pacts, he or she could initiate a grievance through the union.

‘Water Cooler Talk’

The tentative agreements come a day after leaders at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution and Prevention touted the benefits of employees being in the office, during a call that was listened to by Bloomberg Law.

“It can be hard to build teams in a virtual environment,” said Rick Keigwin, deputy assistant manager for management at the chemicals office. “Some mentoring can be a challenge. Some of the opportunistic discussions that help to spur some future collaboration or future insights into the health of the organization are harder to come by over Teams.”

Keigwin also spoke of the advantages of “running into people in the hallway or in the stairwell, or taking a walk at lunch,” which he said “really help to build a camaraderie that’s been a bit more challenging” during the pandemic.

He also praised the staff for their collaborations during lockdown and stressed that the EPA is open to changing its phased-in return to office plans depending on what scientists learn about the omicron variant.

But Andrea Medici, an EPA attorney and chief steward of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280, told Bloomberg Law she didn’t share management’s enthusiasm for being in the office.

“I don’t put a whole lot of value in water cooler talk, personally,” Medici said. “It usually seems to devolve into gossip, which is rarely constructive for any organization. It might lead to lunch plans, but I don’t believe it is the key to spontaneous productive collaboration.”

Medici also said EPA managers have “described aspects of a workplace that no longer exists. Whether for good or for ill, working outside the office will make up a much larger part of government jobs going forward.”

Coronavirus Threat

She further expressed concern that the coronavirus pandemic is still a significant threat.

“Employees are panicking that they will be forced to report to the office before they feel safe and without adequate Metro availability or safety,” Medici said, referring to the Washington, D.C., subway system.

Management could gain a “whole lot of good will from employees” by granting them the freedom to work remotely unless their jobs must be done on site, she said.

In November, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidance urging agencies to expand the use of telecommuting and other workplace flexibilities.

Other unions are now working with agency leadership to develop a plan that “meets our organizational needs but also works to provide you all with the flexibilities that the administrator has laid out,” Keigwin said.