Watchdog will evaluate how EPA reopening offices amid pandemic

The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General will examine how the agency plans to safeguard employees during the pandemic as some of them start to return to the workplace, according to Bloomberg News.

The independent watchdog said in a memo Wednesday that it was initiating the evaluation as part of its review of how the pandemic is affecting the Environmental Protection Agency’s operations. It noted, however, that the EPA OIG was one of 24 federal inspectors general that the chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations asked to review reopening measures.

Employees had “the option to return to the office” starting on June 23, according to an internal agency email. The EPA reopening is in the first of three stages outlined in White House reopening guidelines for individuals and employers.

The OIG investigation will look at EPA headquarters, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, agency offices in Cincinnati, and the EPA’s 10 regional offices.

Some EPA staff represented by the agency’s biggest union, the American Federation of Government Employees, expressed concern that the agency is reopening too quickly as U.S. coronavirus cases surge.

“AFGE welcomes the IG’s investigation into EPA’s rushed reopening process,” the union’s national president Everett Kelley said in an emailed statement, adding that the EPA’s reopening plans included inadequate health and safety provisions for different offices.

“Employee health and safety should be the number one priority of the agency, not scoring political points for rushing employees back to offices without adequate health and safety considerations in place,” he said.

Nicole Patterson, acting director of the EPA’s Labor and Employee Relations Division, said in a letter to union leaders last week that they were making false claims that the agency wasn’t communicating its reopening plans, and “stoking fear in employees about returning to the workplace.”