EPA worker rights under White House assault

Last week, the Trump administration executed another step in its plan to dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Step one was appointing agency leaders who don’t support EPA’s mission. Step two was throwing out rules designed to protect the public from pollution and from climate change. Now comes step three: stripping EPA employees of rights and unilaterally changing employment conditions that are essential to maintaining a functioning workplace.

While running for office in 2016, Donald Trump told Fox News that, if elected, he would dismantle EPA to the point where there would be only “little tidbits left.” Unless Congress steps in, this goal will soon be in sight.

On July 8 – the same day President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE gave a fantastical speech boasting of “incredible” environmental achievements – his administration announced it was throwing out years of past agreements between EPA management and our union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and imposing new workplace edicts on two-thirds of the workforce as AFGE represents nearly 8,000 EPA workers.

These new workplace rules, which were not negotiated with the union and not agreed to by employees, will have far-reaching consequences on employees and the work that they do.

For instance, the new directive nearly eliminates the option for most employees to work from alternative work locations closer to where they live. For an agency that is supposed to be committed to reducing carbon emissions, minimizing commutes for its own employees should be a high priority. Over the past decade, EPA has steadily increased the availability of telework to the point where many employees rely heavily on that option – not only to reduce commute times, but to balance childcare and other obligations. With that option yanked away, many employees will choose other employment alternatives – especially any that are closer to home.

Additionally, the unilateral directive denies workers due process by limiting workers’ access to grievance procedures and preventing union representatives from meeting with employees and managers to resolve disputes. Denying workers due process in this way creates an untenable work situation for employees.  

In the Bay Area, this action initially and primarily hurts the staff-level attorneys who work at EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office (EPA Region 9) in San Francisco and are members of AFGE Local 1236. They handle mission-critical cases that include cleaning up Superfund sites, pursuing clean air and clean water cases in court, prosecuting environmental crimes, cleaning up oil spills, enforcing hazardous waste and toxic substances laws, and much more – all to protect the American public and the environment from diverse and complex environmental burdens and disasters. And they have been doing this vital work despite severe staffing and budget cuts over the past several years.   

Unfortunately, the administration’s attack on our workplace rights and protections isn’t isolated to EPA. At agency after agency – Education, Health and Human Services, Social Security, Veterans Affairs – political appointees are hijacking the collective bargaining process in an attempt to force through anti-worker provisions. Many of these proposals mirror those contained in three executive orders President Trump issued in May 2018 that were subsequently ruled illegal by a federal judge.

The administration’s rejection of labor rights is part of a broader effort to silence federal workers and gut workplace rights. It is precisely these benefits that make it possible for many of those employees to stay at the EPA, working toward a cleaner and safer environment for all of us. 

If the administration succeeds in enforcing these anti-labor directives, EPA and other federal agencies will have an even harder time recruiting and retaining employees who perform critical services on behalf of our country. That is clearly the intent of the Trump administration, which sees federal employees as the enemy.

As employees leave the agency, most are never replaced, and access to clean air and clean water and safe places for our families to live and play will steadily dwindle. We all need to let our senators and congressional representatives know that we value the work of the EPA and other federal agencies and ask them to intervene before the damage that is being done to EPA and other agencies across the government becomes permanent.

Bethany Dreyfus is president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1236 and represents employees at EPA Region 9 (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Islands)