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Employees in EPA’s Chicago office lead resistance to Pruitt’s attacks on environmental regulations

EPA employee resistance to Scott Pruitt’s agenda varies by region.

EPA EMPLOYEES AND ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATES RALLY OUTSIDE THE AGENCY'S HEADQUARTERS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. ON APRIL 25, 2018. CREDIT: MARK HAND/THINKPROGRESS
EPA EMPLOYEES AND ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATES RALLY OUTSIDE THE AGENCY'S HEADQUARTERS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. ON APRIL 25, 2018. CREDIT: MARK HAND/THINKPROGRESS

Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) headquarters in Washington and its regional office in Chicago have not shied away from speaking out against Administrator Scott Pruitt’s efforts to drastically weaken the agency.

That’s not the case at every EPA office across the nation, said the president of the EPA’s largest employee union. Since President Trump entered the White House, he claims employees have feared for their jobs if they were to stand up against an administration that emphasizes loyalty to the president.

Many EPA employees have shown “great courage and are going forward and trying to do something,” according to John O’Grady, president of the American Federal of Government Employees (AFGE) Council #238, which represents more than 8,000 EPA employees.

“And there are other regions that are basically trying to stick their heads in the sand,” O’Grady said Wednesday at a meeting with reporters at the National Press Club in Washington.

According to O’Grady, the EPA employees who stay quiet are going to get treated just as poorly as the ones who speak out. “That’s what they don’t understand. You’re not going to be rewarded for being quiet,” he said.

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Instead of focusing on all of the scandals surrounding Pruitt, O’Grady said his primary goal as head of the EPA’s largest employee union is to protect jobs. Without adequate staffing levels, the agency cannot carry out its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

The EPA currently has about 14,100 employees, down from its peak of just over 18,100 in 1999. In previous decades, the agency also had more contractors than it does now, which put the total number of EPA workers closer to 24,000.

Since Pruitt took over as head of the EPA, however, “people have been retiring to get out of the agency, to get out of this toxic environment,” said O’Grady.

Another threat to EPA workers and other federal employees is a series of executive orders issued by President Trump that could severely weaken protections for federal employees.

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Last month, Trump signed three executive orders affecting disciplinary procedures and contract negotiations and limiting union business on government time. One of the orders makes it easier to fire and discipline federal employees.

“We will have a workforce, if Mr. Trump gets his way, that has no protections, that has no voice, and that they can fire at will,” O’Grady said in reaction to the executive orders. “And then he would get people to do exactly what he wants, which is not to protect the environment, not to protect human health.”

The AFGE filed a lawsuit on May 30 against Trump’s executive order restricting the amount of time federal employees on the job can spend on union activity. The union alleges in the lawsuit that Trump’s order violates the First Amendment and is an overreach of Trump’s authority laid out in the Constitution.

The EPA defended Trump’s executive orders, highlighting their potential role in saving taxpayers money.

“The Trump Administration promised to bring accountability to the federal government and through these Executive Orders the Administration is ensuring accountability in the federal workforce as well, including those who wish to be a member of one of the seven EPA unions,” an EPA spokesperson said in an email to ThinkProgress. “EPA is in the negotiation process with these unions and under the EOs, taxpayers will save $1.88 million that they would otherwise pay for in union time across EPA.”

The EPA said the president’s three executive orders will impact all seven of the the agency’s unions. The agency said it will “engage its unions with the intent to negotiate agreements that promote efficient and effective government.”

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O’Grady views the executive orders as part of Trump’s goal of drastically cutting federal regulations. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2017, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon explained that the new administration would be aiming for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

“And that’s what Scott Pruitt is doing and that’s what [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke is doing,” O’Grady said.

O’Grady, who has led the union since 2016, said employees have been less vocal in the agency’s Region 1 office in Boston, the Region 2 office in New York City, and the Region 7 office in Kansas City. “They need to ramp up their efforts,” he said.

In Cincinnati, where the EPA operates a major laboratory, employees decided against holding a rally against Pruitt’s policies, even though it would have been on public property, said O’Grady, who works as an environmental scientist in the agency’s Chicago regional office.

The Chicago office has been a hotbed of opposition to the Trump administration’s efforts to gut the EPA. Even before Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate, hundreds of  people, including scores of EPA employees, rallied across the street from the agency’s regional headquarters in downtown Chicago to oppose Pruitt’s nomination.

Many EPA employees in the Chicago office also have not been afraid to talk to the press and be quoted by name in national publications.

According to O’Grady, he received information showing Cathy Stepp, the new head of the agency’s Region 5 office in Chicago, had a recent meeting with her senior leadership team. She told her team that Pruitt has indicated that “if they don’t tamp down the noise coming from Chicago, there will be consequences,” he said.

In statement provided to ThinkProgress on Thursday, Stepp denied the claims made by O’Grady.

“I have never instructed my managers to ‘tamp down the noise coming from Chicago,’ nor have I received any similar directive from Administrator Pruitt or anyone else,” Stepp said in the emailed statement. “In my communications with staff and managers, I have always made clear my policy of openness and my support to employees in elevating issues and concerns.”

In April, the AFGE Local 3331 organized a large rally outside EPA headquarters in Washington attended by dozens of agency employees who wanted to express their dissatisfaction with Pruitt and their support for the agency sticking to its mission.

Outside of Washington and Chicago, though, EPA employees seem more afraid to rock the boat O’Grady noted. Even EPA union representatives are hesitant to speak out.

At the EPA’s massive research complex in Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, North Carolina, a union representative told O’Grady she doesn’t want to speak to the news media because she’s afraid of losing her job.

“And this is a person who works for the union who is protected by statute,” he emphasized. “I am concerned about the intimidation that’s being done even among some the union folks so that they are afraid to speak out. If they don’t speak out, who will?”

Scientists at the Research Triangle Park, where the EPA conducts air pollution research and regulation, “are so scared that they’re afraid of their shadows,” he said.

The EPA already has dangerously low staff levels, he said, and the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts would cripple the agency. Despite the ongoing attacks on the agency, O’Grady pledged to continue fighting for a stronger EPA.

“I believe the only way to resist is to stand up and tell the truth,” he said.

This article was updated on June 14, 2018 to include comments from an EPA spokesperson on President Trump’s executive orders targeting the federal workforce. This article also was updated to include a statement from EPA Region 5 Administrator Cathy Stepp.