Opinion

Fresh Air at EPA and How to Protect It

The first days of the Biden administration have given renewed hope to tens of millions of Americans. For many federal workers, the new leadership in Washington is like a breath of fresh air and a break from a stranglehold.

While President Donald Trump called us “the swamp” and the “deep state,” President Biden includes federal employees as part of the American team. A year ago, workers at the Environmental Protection Agency were fighting for a workers’ bill of rights to protect career civil servants from their own employer. Today, our leadership as public servants is being applauded and the principles we are fighting for — the right to scientific integrity, the right to a hate-free and safe workplace, the right to fulfill our mission as EPA employees dedicated to protecting human health and the environment — are shared by our incoming leaders.

But after being attacked for four years by the Trump administration, we know hope can turn on a dime. At the EPA, we know the value of fresh air and the lengths you have to go to protect it. We also recognize that disinvestment in the federal workforce and attacks on the character of public servants have been going on for decades. Only now, it’s brought agencies like EPA to their lowest staffing and funding levels in a generation, even as we’re tasked with the biggest challenge of our generation: combating climate change.

In his first days in office, Biden has rightfully and swiftly used executive powers to revoke disastrous union-busting actions from the previous administration, as well as ending a gag order on diversity and halting a move to strip civil service standards. His slate of nominees and transition officials — professionals with a history of government work, not industry lobbyists — have also been promising signs about the value this government places in experience.

But part of leading effectively is listening to the people being led. In the case of EPA, that means supporting the employees who are on the front lines of saving the planet — not just climate scientists, but the IT specialists who have kept EPA humming remotely during the pandemic and union stewards who advocate tirelessly for stronger workplace protections.

Listening sessions hosted by transition team officials signaled the administration’s new approach early on, but there is more work to be done. We can’t fulfill the Paris Climate Accord’s goals without investing in the EPA employees responsible for enforcing those goals. We can’t make headway in addressing environmental justice while EPA employees are still discouraged from speaking up about workplace issues because of draconian disciplinary structures, punitive performance evaluations, or retaliatory managers.

We can’t tackle toxic environments without addressing toxicity within our own agency.

One way the incoming EPA leadership can deliver on President Biden’s executive actions is to immediately undo the Trump administration’s tampering with collective bargaining and restore union contract agreements from the past. Instead of continuing the previous administration’s attacks against flexible schedules and remote work, new managers should recognize telework for what it is: a crucial workplace measure that literally saved lives during this pandemic.

We also must take a hard look at how managers are held accountable if they mistreat employees and strengthen workers’ rights to make claims against their managers for discrimination, harassment and oppression. Intimidation has no place in our workplaces, and the new administration should send a strong message to all federal employees that they should not be afraid of using their voice and coming together to demand changes.

Thousands of people left the government over the last four years, but many more stayed. We watched the Trump administration slash and burn across our agencies, and we are intimately familiar with the cracks in our foundations and what must be done to bring our government back up to speed. The EPA was once ranked as one of the best federal agencies to work in; now it’s near the bottom of the list.

While we must laud Biden’s swift leadership from the White House, the federal government’s recovery cannot be top-down. We need to put federal workers first and heal those cracks, boost morale and invest from the bottom up. Focusing on the workplace issues that prevent dedicated public servants from executing on their mission — in our case at EPA, protecting human health and the environment and tackling climate change — will be a major test of the Biden administration’s ability to lead our team.

Nate James is an IT technician at the Environmental Protection Agency and president of AFGE Local 3331, a union representing workers in EPA’s D.C. headquarters.

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