E&E News: EPA, union set May date for return to office

E&E NEWS PM | EPA and its largest union have reached agreement on a return to the office for employees, many of whom have been teleworking during the Covid-19 pandemic.

American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 7,500 EPA employees, signed a memorandum of understanding with the agency on office reopening. Under the agreement, no EPA employee represented by the union will be required to return to the office prior to May 2.

“I think it’s a great MOU,” Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Council 238, told E&E News. “I think it has a lot of protections for our workers, a lot of protections and flexibilities they can use to protect themselves from the virus.”

Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, told E&E News, “Pushing the return to work to warmer weather allows the workforce to commute outside, keeping them safer,” adding, “They can bike. They can walk. All those great things.”

An EPA spokesperson acknowledged questions from E&E News but didn’t respond further.

The deal, which only applies to AFGE’s bargaining unit employees, said staff will not be coerced into volunteering to come to the office and can request telework or remote work. Employees must make those requests no later than 21 days before the reentry date.

Last year, the union had reached separate agreements with the agency on those issues. They included expanding telework up to four days a week as well as creating remote work for those represented by the union, allowing staff to work permanently outside the office (Greenwire, Dec. 2, 2021).

The new MOU, the result of months of negotiations, also said EPA will continue to leverage technology for “a hybrid workplace” and set up guidelines on who will be tested and when for the virus. Also, the agency will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for masking and social distancing.

CDC recently changed that guidance to loosen requirements. Consequently, as of today, EPA offices are no longer mandating masks if their “community level” of Covid-19 is judged to be low or medium, which includes the agency’s headquarters and regional offices (E&E News PM, March 4).

Still, masks may be required if infections from the virus surge again.

“All employees must wear masks in EPA offices when the EPA Dashboard indicates their office is in an area of high community level,” the agreement said. “Masking requirements will be reestablished when/if high community levels are reached.”

EPA will also inspect its ventilation systems and post information about those systems on a webpage. In addition, the agency, if requested by an employee, will monitor carbon dioxide levels in conference rooms with 20 or more people in its larger facilities.

Lower CO2 levels in a room can indicate better airflow and thus decreased risk of Covid-19 infection.

CO2 monitoring is expected to be a subject for more negotiations. While the union will provide handheld CO2 monitors to staff, EPA would not provide them, Powell said. She now plans to bring the issue to the Federal Service Impasses Panel.

“It’s a simple tool that tells you the CO2 levels in an area,” Powell said, adding with that information, one could open a door or a window or have people leave the room to improve those levels.

Powell said, “While disappointed with that, we’re still very happy with what we got in this.”

The majority of EPA’s workforce has been teleworking since March 2020 to avoid exposure to the virus. But recently the agency has moved to bring hundreds of its staff back to the office.

Starting February through the end of this month, EPA’s nonbargaining unit employees — including political appointees, senior officials and managers — are returning to the office. Those represented by unions other than AFGE are still waiting for a return date.

“We also continue to work with our union partners to identify return to work dates for our bargaining unit employees,” Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said in an email Friday, before the AFGE council announced its agreement with EPA on return-to-work plans today.