The EPA’s culture was already toxic. Now, they’re putting employees at risk for COVID for no reason

EPA workers were lauded for working just as well remotely. Why are they being asked to go back to work now?

Published July 25, 2020 9:29AM (EDT)

Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters Building in Washington DC (Getty Images)
Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters Building in Washington DC (Getty Images)

Though COVID-19 cases are rising, Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency management is forcing its workers to return to unsafe offices — disproportionately exposing our Black and brown scientists and engineers to serious risk, as well as the communities we serve, with no real justification. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) workforce has been telecommuting since March — and has been able to fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment effectively while working remote. EPA leadership even congratulated our workforce for the quantity and quality of work we completed while telecommuting. Now, EPA is changing direction midstream, when worker productivity is at an all-time high, and while COVID-19 remains a grave threat.

There is no mission reason why the scientists and engineers of EPA should report to their offices. The environment will not suddenly be cleaner if we change our work location. Administrator Andrew Wheeler is simply intent on sending EPA workers back to unsafe offices to abide by Trump's politically-driven "reopening" agenda.

While EPA's return-to-office plan has been an assault on the health and safety of all our workers, EPA management has made no acknowledgement of the facts: Black Americans are three times as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts. Latinos are also dying at disproportionately elevated rates when compared to whites.

Take my regional office in Chicago for example. Workers of color in EPA's Region 5, Chicago, often face long public transit commutes from segregated communities, just to arrive at an EPA office that is not equipped to protect their safety. This doesn't just impact EPA employees, but the communities we live and work in. If one of our workers should die as a result of EPA's reckless choice to send us back into an unsafe office during a pandemic, it will more likely be one of our Black or brown colleagues who suffers the gravest consequences. But with nearly all EPA regions in-line to reopen, from Dallas, to Atlanta, to Washington D.C. and New York, this is true across the board.

Meanwhile, EPA leadership has responded to the civic uprising against racial injustice these past weeks, and during this pandemic, with emails filled with platitudes. "EPA has zero tolerance for racism or any act of discrimination against our employees," Wheeler recently wrote. This is false. EPA is taking actions that cause harm to Black and brown workers, including the return-to-office plan that he and the White House promulgated in the middle of a pandemic. 

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In my 13 years as a Black woman scientist at EPA, I have witnessed countless acts of prejudice by EPA management. I had to watch a video clip with over twenty co-workers for "training"  with a wastewater treatment plant staff —all white — rapping poorly and dancing foolishly, in a manner that could only be described as mocking Black culture. No one in the room found it funny but the EPA managers. Then there's Susan Schultz, a manager from EPA's NYC office, recently featured on TMZ, for making a false call to the police about her Black neighbors. EPA has not taken any immediate action against "Permit Karen," while the rest of the world is on notice that white people who threaten the lives of people of color with false reports face losing their jobs.

It seems the culture at EPA is deeply broken, and it won't change until management finally faces reality and takes meaningful steps to transform it. 

And yet, EPA management drives ahead with the reopening plan that we know would disproportionately harm our workers of color. It will coerce our scientists, engineers, attorneys and support staff back into an unsafe workplace without compliance with CDC recommendations requiring HVAC performance, physical cubicle partitions, covers for toilets or written action plans for when a worker is exposed to or contracts COVID-19. Workers have already reported that while returning to the office is "voluntary" for the first and second phases, they have felt pressure from their managers to come in to the office with no recourse should they face retaliation for prioritizing their health and safety by continuing to telework

Re-opening our offices is a choice that will put Black and brown people at greater risk. If EPA is committed to racial justice and eliminating white supremacy in our offices, we must maintain tele-work through the end of this pandemic and put safety first, plain and simple.

We urge members of Congress to take action to demand answers from EPA about this plan. And we urge everyone to sign our petition demanding racial equity in EPA's return plan.

By Felicia Chase

Felicia Chase, an African American geologist and environmental scientist at EPA Region 5’s Water Division, has been with the agency for 13 years. She has worked in Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act (Enforcement and Permitting) programs.

Chase was one of the emergency response team scientists deployed (five times) during the Flint drinking water crisis, where she worked on both the Residential Sampling and Total Residual Chlorine teams.

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Commentary Covid-19 Environmental Protection Agency Labor Pandemic