E&E News: EPA, union strike deal to expand telework

By Kevin Bogardus
December 3, 2021

EPA and its largest union have brokered pacts giving more flexibility to staff on when and where they work.

American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 7,500 EPA employees, is cheering the three tentative agreements reached with EPA on teleworkremote work and work schedules.

They stem from the agency’s “future of work” negotiations with the union that began during the Covid-19 pandemic. They will allow staff to work more often outside the office and provide them greater control over their work schedules.

Joyce Howell, AFGE Council 238’s chief negotiator for the talks with EPA, told E&E News the agreements were “a great win” for the bargaining unit and would allow employees to keep their work-life balance.

“We have an enormous amount of talent we want to keep, and we have an enormous amount of talent we want to attract. We are dealing with the issue of our lifetimes, which is climate change,” Howell said. “We need all those good brains to stay at EPA and bring more in. I think it makes it a more attractive workplace.”

Bethany Dreyfus, president of AFGE Local 1236, which represents EPA Region 9 employees, and a member of the negotiating team, agreed.

“In addition to the work-life balance benefits, these articles are going to help us attract a diverse workforce, fight climate change and deal with the effects of the continued evolution of Covid,” Dreyfus said. “We needed something to allow us to be as nimble as we were in 2020. It’s now in our contract.”

An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the tentative agreements when contacted by E&E News for this story.

The agreements have been signed by negotiators for both EPA and the union but are not final yet. The council will vote on their ratification on Dec. 10. Then the articles will have to be signed off on by EPA’s leadership under a process known as “agency head review.”

EPA union officials estimated that the articles will be in effect no later than Jan. 10 next year.

The articles represent a stark change from EPA’s approach during the Trump administration to often restrict telework and workers’ rights. In April, AFGE and the agency signed off on a memorandum of understanding noting that telework and work schedules were appropriate to be bargained over, signaling Trump-era limits were on their way out (Greenwire, April 7).

“The EPA supports the use of telework for the benefit of the environment, agency operations, cost savings and work/life balance of its workforce,” says the new agreement on telework.

EPA employees could telework four days a week under the article. That’s more than the two days per week than the union has in its current contract with the agency.

AFGE also negotiated with EPA its first-ever article on remote work. Once defined as “full-time telework,” the agreement would allow staff to work from home permanently and rarely come into the office.

Both articles say employees’ eligibility for telework and remote work is based on their job functions, not preference by their managers. In addition, requests for either type of work cannot be “unreasonably denied,” according to the agreements.

EPA union officials said that language in the agreements will empower workers at the agency.

“We have learned during the pandemic how effectively we can work from remote locations,” Dreyfus said. “We need to take that and use the flexibilities to get our work done and achieve a work-life balance.”

Further, EPA employees will have greater say on when they work.

The work schedules agreement lets those working “Maxiflex” schedules work during their “core hours,” when they must be on duty, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. The current contract has those hours from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

In addition, EPA staff members now have a greater time range to complete their work hours each day. Employees can start as early as 5 a.m. and end as late as 8 p.m. under the article. The current contract has that range at 6 a.m. through 7 p.m.

“EPA workers need a lot of flexibility to get the work done on behalf of the American people on these incredibly critical issues,” Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, and another negotiating team member, told E&E News.

Cantello added, “The agency has to be all in with the union in implementing these policies and articles.”

The Biden administration has been pushing agencies to incorporate greater use of working from home and flexible scheduling for the federal workforce. Last month, the Office of Personnel Management issued new guidance on telework and remote work, saying such practices can help retain and recruit talent (Greenwire, Nov. 15).

The new agreements come as EPA is gearing up to bring more staff back into the office. The vast majority of the agency’s employees have been teleworking since March 2020 to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

In plans laid out last month, EPA’s senior political leaders were to report to the office, although many appointees were already working there. Non-bargaining-unit employees, such as managers, supervisors and Senior Executive Service members, are to return in January (Greenwire, Nov. 19).

EPA is sticking for now to those plans, despite the emergence of the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron.

“At this time, it is too early to know whether and how this new variant will impact the progress toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States or around the world,” Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told EPA employees in an email sent earlier this week. “While we aren’t making any changes to our plans today, we are monitoring this situation very closely.”

Still, EPA has not set a date for the bulk of its workforce, the 11,000 employees who are bargaining unit members, including those represented by AFGE, to come back to the workplace.

That time may be coming soon. The agreements negotiated between EPA and the union could transition employees away from maximum telework toward a limited return to the office.

“I think that’s part of the design. They deliver an expanded work-life balance,” Howell said. “The fact that we have completed these negotiations before reentry will allow people to make workplace arrangements before reentry.”