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Trump Administration’s plan to bring EPA workers back is unsafe, union says

A “deficient” process to bring employees back to federal offices in Chicago will put them at risk for COVID-19, they say.

Some Chicago EPA employees joined in a protest by Trump Tower during the president’s visit to the city in October.
Some Chicago EPA employees joined in an October protest against the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken environmental protections.
Better Government Association

The Trump Administration is taking steps to bring hundreds of employees at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago back to their offices in the coming weeks, putting them at risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus, the workers’ union charges.

The EPA is moving toward a phased return to work without taking appropriate precautions, said Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704. While President Donald Trump has been pushing workers in all industries to go back to work for months, part of the motivation, she suspects, is tighter control of employees amid the administration’s ongoing efforts to weaken environmental protections.

The agency says decisions on when workers return has not been finalized. Employees, however, have been complaining for months that the EPA’s phased return to work schedule fails to provide basic protections against COVID-19 like reconfigured office space and quarantine guidelines. Next week, Chicago EPA moves into a new phase, setting up a potential return to the office in the near future, Cantello said.

In four letters to Kurt Thiede, Chicago’s regional administrator, more than 100 EPA employees said that basic safety guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were not being taken into account. Rather, the EPA is laying out an “incomplete” and “deficient” plan, they say.

The Trump EPA plan “poses serious and unjustifiable health and safety risks, which have not been adequately addressed by the agency,” employees said in an August letter. Also, the agency “does not present any compelling, countervailing benefits that justify the significant risks of returning to the office at this time.”

A spokesman said the downtown offices have hand sanitizing stations, signs that encourage social distancing and mask requirements for common areas.

“Reopening decisions are determined with EPA scientists and examining guidance and orders of local and state officials,” the agency said in a statement. “ ... The agency encourages employees to telework absent a mission critical need to be in the office.”

Scientists, who make up at least half of the 800 Chicago-area EPA employees, have not been involved with the reopening decisions, Cantello said.

“What’s really concerning, is there’s no rhyme or reason for this,” Cantello said.

The regional office in Chicago is responsible for environmental oversight in six states, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Less than 200 employees work outside the Chicago area, Cantello said. Most of the local employees are housed in the Ralph H. Metcalfe Federal Building downtown.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.