The AFGE Council 238’s locals representing 7,500 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees nationwide recently voted that they have “no confidence” in the EPA leadership, including Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and their plan to reopen offices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Oct. 5 no-confidence vote reflected EPA employees’ concerns over their safety as the EPA continued to push to reopen offices when the coronavirus is still surging and the U.S. remains a virus hot spot that continues to lead the world in the number of people killed and infected. More than 8 million people in the U.S. have been infected while over 222,000 people have died.
“It is a fundamental duty of an employer to provide for the safety of its employees in the workplace,” said Council 238 President Gary Morton in a letter to Wheeler informing him of the no-confidence vote. “AFGE's message has been clear: to keep EPA workers safe, keep them teleworking until a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 is available. It is the safest, most efficient, and cost-effective means to keep EPA workers, their families and their communities safe while fulfilling the mission of the Agency to protect human health and the environment.”
According to the council, Administrator Wheeler issues senior leadership's decisions for reopening of individual EPA locations each week. EPA uses a dashboard with data regarding each locality, though reopening decisions are often made when criteria on the dashboard are "in the red," indicating that the criteria for reopening are not met.
Currently, EPA Headquarters and the 9 of the 10 regional offices are in Phase 2, which means telework is encouraged if feasible with business operations. But the agency is poised to potentially move to Phase 3 very soon, according to the council. In Phase 3, the agency will require employees to come back into agency office buildings regardless of whether their work is public facing.
The agency has also determined that masks are not considered Personal Protective Equipment, and so they are not providing them to employees entering the offices. Masks are also required only in locations where local authorities order it.
“We are alarmed by the utter lack of regard for the safety of EPA workers by Administrator Wheeler during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we continue to work remotely to great acclaim by our management, this Administration seeks to grievously harm EPA scientists, engineers, attorneys, public health professionals, and administrative staff by sending us back into office settings without articulating the benefit that would be gained by the American people or the environment,” the council said.