The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission became the latest federal agency to delay plans to return employees to official job sites last week due to concerns over Omicron’s growing variant of COVID-19. .
Last November, EEOC President Charlotte Burrows announced to staff that employees would begin returning to the office in three stages in early 2022: senior executives and managers would return on January 18, other supervisors would return on January 31, and the bargaining unit and other front-line employees would return on February 14.
But on Jan. 7, Burrows sent a new email to staff indefinitely delaying the start of the school year, citing the growing variant of Omicron and employee concerns.
“Many of you are understandably concerned about the Omicron variant, which emerged after the initial announcement of target dates for EEOC re-entry,” she wrote. “While the latest data suggests that, overall, the effects of Omicron are less severe than those of previous variants, it is also highly transmissible. In the circumstances, we have decided to delay re-entry into our offices. By Therefore, employees will not be required to begin physically returning to EEOC workplaces on the dates originally scheduled.
Council 216 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents EEOC employees, applauded the decision and said the union hopes the delay will lead the agency to work more collaboratively with worker representatives. The union filed two unfair labor practices against the agency following the November announcement of the start dates, one for not engaging the union before the announcement and the other for not responding to requests for information before the union’s original deadline for submitting back-to-school bargaining proposals in early December.
Board Chair Rachel Shonfield said the recent rift between workers and agency management is uncharacteristic of the EEOC, which she said has traditionally had a very productive labour-management relationship. She said the initial back-to-school announcement last year caused consternation among the workforce, especially since it didn’t address how the agency could expand telecommuting across the board. beyond the maximum of eight days per pay period that was in place before the pandemic.
“Bargaining unit employees were immediately calling union officials and texting and emailing,” Shonfield said. “Everyone was very upset and wanted to know where those dates came from and how this plan would protect them.”
EEOC spokesman James Ryan said how the agency might adjust its permanent telework schedule in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic “has yet to be determined.”
Shonfield said the initial re-entry schedule, combined with the agency’s lack of detail on how re-entry would work outside of the now-postponed target dates, made it unnecessarily difficult to negotiate over implementation. She said she hoped the delay would bring the agency to the table to work collaboratively not just on reintegration plans and telecommuting, but to ensure employees and members of the public can stay safe once the reopened offices.
“We really urge the agency to take this opportunity to change its stance on trading bonds, and we would like to start trading without lines in the sand,” she said. “We want the agency to do things right. It’s not about negotiating for the sake of negotiating: we provide the front-line perspective so that it can be done safely, because there are people in the head office who don’t necessarily know what an office looks like. reception or its size. »
Ryan said the EEOC is “strongly committed” to negotiating in good faith with AFGE, though he noted the agency has not yet completed its reinstatement plan.
“The EEOC COVID Coordination Team is closely monitoring pandemic conditions and is currently in the process of drafting a re-entry plan and, once approved by the EEOC Chair, will present it for review and comments,” he said. “The union will be given every opportunity to negotiate the impact and implementation of the initial reintegration plan. . . We look forward to working with the union to ensure the safe return of the EEOC workforce to our headquarters and field offices across the country so that we can restore greater public access to our essential services.