During a conference call last week with hundreds of employees throughout New England, the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said it would be a long time before the agency reopened its large headquarters in downtown Boston and other offices, according to several employees on the call.
The next day, Dennis Deziel, the administrator, told the staff by e-mail that the EPA would begin the reopening process this week, even as Massachusetts continues to report hundreds of new coronavirus cases every day.
The abrupt reversal has raised concerns among the more than 500 scientists, engineers, and other EPA employees in New England that the decision to reopen was the result of political pressure by the Trump administration, which has urged agencies, companies, and other institutions across the country to accelerate their reopening plans.
“Employees feel as though they are political pawns for this administration’s agenda,” said Steve Calder, a clean air inspector at the EPA and president of the local branch of the American Federation of Government Employees "We feel our safety is not being considered first.”
In his email to staff on Friday, Deziel, who was appointed to oversee the New England region last summer after years working as a lobbyist for the chemical industry, outlined a detailed plan for the agency’s return to normal operations.
“Maintaining the health and safety of our workforce while fulfilling our mission responsibilities is our top priority,” he wrote, adding that he had been been “notified” late the day before that the initial reopening criteria had been met.
He didn’t say who notified him, or provide data to support the decision to reopen the agency’s offices, labs, and warehouses in Boston’s Post Office Square, Chelmsford, and Woburn.
Deziel said the reopening would be gradual and follow a thorough, week-long cleaning of all the offices, which he promised would “render the virus inactive.”
“Once we reopen, we will remain committed to keeping our facilities properly cleaned and sanitized,” he wrote.
The gradual reopening would allow employees to continue working from home during the first two phases, he added. The plan would also encourage certain employees to remain at home, such as pregnant women or others considered at higher risk of severe illness as a result of the virus.
Employees who return to the office will be required to wear face coverings and physically distance themselves from colleagues as much as possible, at least until state and federal guidelines change, he wrote.
“Our plan is to continue robust usage of unscheduled telework as we transition back to supporting in-office operation,” Deziel wrote.
But some employees said they worried that the initial phases would end quickly and that most employees would be told — or pressed — to return by early next month.
“I’m angry and shocked by how this is being handled,” said Undine Kipka, an environmental engineer who works out of the Boston headquarters. “It’s all happening more quickly than expected, without a lot of information. It makes it seem like the regional administrators are not in control of what’s happening, and that the decisions are being made for political reasons.”
EPA officials in New England deferred questions to their counterparts in Washington D.C.
While the Boston offices are being cleaned this week in preparation for reopening, Angela Hackel, an EPA spokeswoman, said officials haven’t yet decided if the first phase of the reopening would proceed next week.
“EPA’s plan for an eventual phased return to agency offices will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures our employees’ health and safety,” she said.
She noted that Massachusetts has already authorized some businesses to reopen, and that Boston’s City Hall is allowing the public to enter for some business.
“If EPA were to enter into Phase 1 of our reopening plan, it would be consistent with the posture of the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston,” she said.
EPA officials have announced similar reopening plans for most of its other regional offices around the country, drawing a similar backlash from employees.
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents many EPA employees, said the agency has still not answered many of members’ questions, or sought their input.
Officials also didn’t notify the union before announcing their reopening plans, he said.
“The health and safety of employees is at stake,” he said in a statement. “It is disappointing that EPA management does not appear to agree.”
Reardon also raised concerns about the lack of safeguards for returning employees.
“It appears that EPA has no intention of providing personal protective equipment to employees, and the agency is instructing workers to bring their own masks,” he said. “Frankly, this is not good enough.”
Hugh Martinez, a senior enforcement counsel who has worked for the EPA for more than three decades, said most employees take public transportation to the Boston office and many are likely to feel uncomfortable doing so again soon.
Martinez and other employees said they didn’t trust statements from administrators in Washington that they would base reopening decisions on data and the opinion of scientific experts.
The administration has a history of dismissing such advice, they noted.
“We’re denied access to the actual data sets under scrutiny, the methodologies employed, and the identity of those conducting these important analyses,” he said.
He called the agency’s plan “very worrying.”
“There’s a high level of anxiety,” he said. “We feel like pawns.”