The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Joanna Klonsky,

EPA Remote Workplace Irregularities Draw Lawsuit

Frustrated union forced into court to get basic remote work information


Chicago's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704, have filed suit against the EPA in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking disclosure of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regarding the agency's implementation of remote work for Region 5 EPA employees.

EPA state offices are divided into ten regions nationally. Region 5-which is the largest-approves remote work policy for EPA workers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin. The union said EPA employees in Region 5 have been facing a much higher percentage of denials for remote work than most other EPA employees nationally. But when the union has sought data from EPA management to understand Agency decision-making, the union has been met with silence.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many federal employees have been granted the ability to work remotely to protect their health and the health of their families and communities. EPA employees were praised by EPA management, even under the Trump administration, for their effectiveness working remotely--processing more environmental permit applications during the first year of the pandemic compared to a standard year working in-person. While lab testing may require in-person work, many positions at EPA are not dependent on working in person at the Region 5 headquarters, at 77 W. Jackson in downtown Chicago and other satellite offices.

"Unfortunately, during the last year, Region 5 employees have faced unfair denials of their requests for remote work compared to what we are seeing nationwide," said Nicole Cantello, President of AFGE Local 704 which represents EPA employees in Region 5. "To try to get some clarity on the issue, we submitted FOIA requests in May 2022, to get more information about internal remote work discussions, specific denials of remote work for Region 5 employees, and remote work that had been approved for other similarly situated EPA workers. We have not received the data we need and to which we are entitled. EPA's 'estimated date of completion' of the most crucial FOIA requests is months away."

"Other EPA offices across the country have not been denying remote work requests like we've been seeing here in the Midwest," said Cantello. "The union originally bargained the right to remote work with EPA to protect members and their families during this pandemic, so we need to understand why the Region 5 management is denying applications and withholding documents that the union needs to examine EPA decision-making on remote work under FOIA."

The union is being represented in the lawsuit by Hudson B. Kingston, Litigation and Policy Attorney of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER.)

"PEER stands poised to help public servants obtain the information they are entitled to receive from their agencies," said Kingston. "This episode illustrates that EPA is often better at preaching transparency than practicing it."

The civil suit with more information about the FOIA request, is available here.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union proudly representing 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers nationwide and overseas. Workers in virtually all functions of government at every federal agency depend upon AFGE for legal representation, legislative advocacy, technical expertise and informational services.

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