Why EPA workers are fighting to save telework
© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Late last year, I received notice from my employer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that my ability to telework was being reduced with only three weeks’ notice. I have two young daughters, ages 1 and 5, and I have depended on the ability to telework two days a week. I commute two hours each day when I work in the office and saving those hours twice a week has been crucial for me and my family. It has meant more home-cooked meals, thousands of dollars saved on childcare, and priceless memories tucking my daughters in bed.

That’s why I have to speak up against the administration’s backwards war on telework. The attempt to end telework is disingenuous, unsupported by data, and harms the federal government's ability to attract and retain a talented, young workforce – not to mention, it could cost the government millions.

EPA workers right now are bargaining for a new contract with the administration and calling for a Bill of Rights to Protect EPA. Our worker Bill of Rights makes clear that our fight is to protect both EPA work and EPA workers themselves, as well as furthering our mission to protect human health and the environment – and restoring telework is essential for both. Here's why:

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The administration claims that its “war on telework” is about accountability and efficiency. But this claim is directly contradicted by the EPA inspector general who found that EPA’s telework program operates “efficiently and effectively.” Furthermore, fully 97 percent of users were found to be “appropriately trained,” and the IG’s survey for EPA managers and supervisors found that two-thirds reported the policies were useful.

That this administration claims to be seeking “accountability” belies reality and ignores the controls that are in place to ensure the taxpayers get a return on their dollar. Only employees meeting certain performance levels may telework, and all employees are subject to performance reviews at least twice a year.

There is plenty of data on the success and benefits of telework, if only the government would look at its own performance review data. A number of studies have found that telework increases employee productivity and benefits both employers (reduced real estate footprint, improved recruitment and retention, and more work hours worked) and employees (improved work-life balance, better health and reduced stress). Sadly, the administration’s views are rooted in the past, fail to take into account the technical abilities of agency systems and employees, and have the effect of encouraging federal employees to leave.

Indeed, up until this past year, EPA has made a significant investment in facilities, telework-ready equipment, and communication tools to enable work to be conducted seamlessly from remote locations. EPA Order 3110.32 (revised 4/3/17) establishes the eligibility of employees to participate in telework based on the extent to which their work is portable and employee eligibility. EPA’s program has strict criteria and makes clear what qualifies as “portable work.” Additionally, several EPA offices were designed on the premise that workers would be in the office fewer days per week. In EPA’s Region 9, for example, our work encompasses several states, and can bring us across 148 tribes and the Pacific Ocean for extended periods.

For EPA workers who relied on the ability to telework in choosing to live more remotely to save on housing costs, this administration’s inexplicable cut in telework has been economically devastating, turning what was once a good financial decision into a loadstone, forcing these workers to choose between uprooting their families or quitting their jobs.

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And perhaps most importantly, telework aligns with EPA’s mission of human health and environmental protection. The benefits to human health and the environment are real: fewer cars on the road reduces regional air pollution, reduces stress from long commutes, provides energy savings by reducing office space, and helps to alleviate crowding on already overtaxed regional transit. The real benefits have been proven, which is why telework has increased 173 percent since 2005.

Given the wealth of evidence demonstrating the benefits of telework to the achievement EPA’s mission, one can only conclude that this administration wanted to burden employees, hurt their families, force out workers, and obtain an illegal upper hand before negotiating labor contracts. They are nothing if not consistent in their social policies.

Brianna Fairbanks is an EPA attorney, treasurer of AFGE Local 1236, and leader in the fight for an EPA Workers’ Bill of Rights. The opinions expressed are the author's own, and not the opinions of the EPA.