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Federal employees say they’re being forced back to unsafe offices

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Sarah Okeson
Sarah Okeson

The largest union representing EPA employees has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the agency, accusing Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his deputy of lying about contract negotiations as the EPA prepares to require employees to work at their offices during a pandemic.

Wheeler allegedly told employees on July 28 that the EPA offered more flexibility to work remotely during contract negotiations but that the union turned it down “because they wanted more benefits for union leadership.”

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The deputy administrator, Doug Benevento, allegedly falsely told employees on May 21 that the union had spoken to the media about what he had said in a briefing.

“I want to be clear that we will not stand by and have these lies and misrepresentations go unchallenged,” wrote Everett Kelley, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

EPA spokesman James Hewitt said the EPA’s offer of increased flexibility of telework during negotiations “is very well documented.”

“When contacted by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, EPA will provide all requested documentation to FLRA and will comply with their investigation,” Hewitt said.

The union, which represents 7,500 of the agency’s 14,000 employees, signed a five-year contract with the agency on Aug. 6 which includes provisions to provide personal protective equipment and test indoor air quality. Employees are allowed to work remotely up to two days a week.

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In June, Wheeler announced a three-phase reopening with EPA regions moving to the second phase after two weeks of improvement on health measurements. EPA employees have been working remotely since March as COVID-19 spread across the country. The last phase of reopening would require most employees to return to the office except for people who are at greater risk of becoming sick and those with dependents who have negotiated with their supervisors.

Tim Kauffman, a spokesman for the union, said none of the EPA offices have completely opened.

The contract was signed after Wheeler imposed a contract in July 2019 that limited working from home to one day a week and eliminating the grievance process. AFGE filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority over that contract.

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