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A crackdown on working from home is pushing the EPA’s workforce in Boston to the brink

EPA employees rallied in front of the Boston office July 16 to protest a contract, which their union says was implemented illegally, that reduced remote work and union activity.
EPA employees rallied in front of the Boston office July 16 to protest a contract, which their union says was implemented illegally, that reduced remote work and union activity.(Handout)

The Trump administration’s disregard for the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission has riled many agency veterans, particularly when it comes to sustainability and climate change. But a new crackdown on working from home is pushing the already beleaguered workforce in Boston to the brink.

“There’s a lot of things this administration has done that makes it difficult to work here, but this is the first thing that’s really hit staff on a personal level,” said a public liaison for superfund site cleanups who moved to Exeter, N.H. — a nearly two-hour train ride from Boston — in part because of her ability to work from home two days a week, which allows her to pick up her 2-year-old from day care.

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Like other EPA employees who talked to the Globe, she asked that her name not be used.

The directive has left some staff members scrambling to find last-minute help with child care, the employee said. Others are looking for new jobs.

“This could be the last straw,” she said.

The new policy on remote work requires that, as of Aug. 4, the 10,000 EPA employees around the country who are members of the American Federation of Government Employees must be in the office at least four days a week, including those with compressed work schedules. The directive is part of a widespread attempt to reduce the federal workforce by eroding workers’ rights and driving out career employees who may disagree with President Trump’s beliefs, labor analysts say.

The limits on remote work, which was previously allowed two days a week, are part of a new contract that management refers to as a collective bargaining agreement and the union, which was not involved in any bargaining, calls an illegal “unilateral edict.” The contract also puts new restrictions on union activity, curtailing the amount of time union representatives can spend helping employees during the workday; prohibits union officials from using EPA office space and e-mail addresses for official union work; limits the grievance process; and makes it easier for the agency to fire and discipline workers.

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These restrictions align with three executive orders issued by Trump in 2018 to curb the power of federal unions. With these orders being challenged in court, labor analysts say, the administration appears to be trying to instead implement them agency by agency.

Similar contract fights are roiling other government agencies, along with directives that labor analysts say are intended to weaken and reduce the government workforce, such as moving two Department of Agriculture scientific offices from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City and relocating the majority of the staff at Bureau of Land Management headquarters from D.C. to west of the Rockies.

Two-thirds of the roughly 400 employees affected by the USDA move to the Kansas City area have said they would not move, according to the department.

EPA employees are well aware of Trump’s disdain for their agency. During his presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to eliminate the EPA; after he was elected, officials talked of reducing the workforce by half.

Boston EPA employees held a rally July 16 to protest the policy changes, and railed at managers during a meeting the same day. The fact that the agency did not provide any explanation about their decision to reduce telework, simply saying it was going to improve efficiency, infuriated the staff. “To not provide any evidence in a science organization is not acceptable,” one person said, according to employees in the meeting.

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In the Boston office, union president Steve Calder estimates that around 90 percent of the 450 employees in his bargaining unit work from home one or two days a week. Those who work four days a week will no longer be allowed to work from home at all.

“Morale is in the toilet,” said Calder, noting that some workers are blaming the union for the loss of remote work days because it refused to negotiate. “The Trump administration loves chaos. . . . That’s part of their MO: chaos, infighting, fear.”

Talks between the EPA and the union ground to a halt in mid-June, when AFGE filed a grievance over the agency’s effort to renegotiate the entire contract and walked away from the bargaining table. On July 8, the EPA implemented a new contract, a spokesperson said, “as is the agency’s right following the union’s refusal to bargain.”

“The contract provides more accountability and efficiency in dealings between the union, employees, and management, consistent with the direction set by the Administration,” the spokesperson said.

Already, so many longtime employees have left the EPA nationwide that there is a significant experience gap among the ranks, according to a scientist in the Boston office. And the recent changes will only add to the brain drain. “There will be more longer term damage in the loss of institutional knowledge,” she said.

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And that is exactly the point, said David Madland, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Anyone who has scientific evidence showing that climate change is caused by humans and is capable of causing significant harm, for instance, is a threat to Trump’s beliefs, Madland said. Earlier this month, a State Department intelligence analyst resigned after the White House blocked parts of his written testimony to Congress citing evidence that climate change is a threat to national security.

“By weakening unions and undermining expertise, it gives Trump greater power to do what he wants without anyone having the ability to challenge him on it,” Madland said.

But according to John York, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, federal unions are in need of reform. Public sector employees already have more statutory protections than workers in the private sector, he said.

Federal unions are pushing back particularly hard since the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, he said, which reduced unions’ ability to collect fees from workers and put them on the defensive.

“Many of the forgotten men in Trump’s base see federal employees as more protected, higher paid, less hard-working than they are,” said York, who nonetheless insisted that the union changes were not politically motivated. “I think Trump’s efforts are trying to get federal personnel practices more in line with the rest of the labor market.”

An attorney at the Boston EPA office noted that, like other employees, she could have made more money in the private sector. But, in addition to believing in the mission, the attorney valued the benefits and flexibility of working for the government. Now all of that is under fire.

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The administration’s attitude seems to be: “We’re going to make it difficult for you to carry out your mission of using science and the law to protect the environment,” said the attorney, who lives an hour south of Boston and had been planning to increase her remote-work schedule so she could do more day care drop-offs and pickups. “And now we’re also going to make it difficult for you to spend time with your families.”

The clampdown at the EPA is part of an “unmistakable pattern” of hostility toward public servants, said Sharon Block, a former labor adviser to former president Barack Obama who runs the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

And the repercussions could go far beyond the current workforce.

“There’s just a point at which you can’t help but impact the level of service,” she said, “when you’ve so degraded those who provide the service.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.