US Department of Agriculture building in Washington, DC, United States qingwa/ThinkstockPhotos

Are USDA employees being exposed to cancer-causing asbestos?

Union says employees are being exposed. USDA says 'protection procedures' are in place.

by Josh Eidelson 

Located on the National Mall just steps from the Washington Monument, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s imposing headquarters include employees who monitor the health and safety of America’s food supply. But some people who work there are beginning to worry about their health. According to a union representing USDA employees, officials are exposing them to risks from cancer-causing asbestos and lead paint. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened a probe of the building March 29 in response to an employee complaint. The union accused management of failing to provide sufficient notice about asbestos and lead abatement or to maintain secure, sealed physical barriers between ongoing work and staff at nearby desks.

“You have a lot of people here that are frustrated and feel as though their health is not being considered,” said Sherrie Carter, a finance and business loan specialist for the agency’s Rural Utilities Service who serves as president of a union local affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Afscme). “It should’ve been handled way differently,” she said.

To make matters worse, Carter said, the USDA’s recent crackdown on telecommuting is making it difficult for “employees to do their job in a safe location.” She said several workers complained “of feeling ill due to these renovations, and we advised those employees to contact their immediate supervisors and request to” telecommute or be relocated.

In a statement, the USDA confirmed the lead and asbestos abatement but pushed back on union allegations that employees weren’t given enough warning or allowed to telecommute. The agency didn’t comment on specific claims that employees weren’t sufficiently protected from hazardous materials with secure barriers, beyond saying “protection procedures” were in place. (Afscme said the USDA has yet to respond to its formal grievance, which was filed March 15. The response is due by mid-June, according to the union.)

“USDA identified options for its employees to continue work either in other office spaces,” sharing desks or telecommuting, agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement. He added that human resources officials met with union representatives three days before the OSHA investigation was opened, and more meetings were later held with the union and OSHA.

Asbestos and lead paint are “the two primary hazards” associated with renovating buildings, and the federal government has sometimes failed to handle them safely on its own property, said George Washington University public health professor David Michaels, who ran OSHA under President Barack Obama. “The area needs to be enclosed,” he said of abatement procedures. “That barrier has to be in place—and impermeable.”

Photos provided by Afscme show an office covered with a tarp and marked with a sign stating “DANGER ASBESTOS,” warning of the risk of cancer and lung damage and instructing individuals to wear respiratory protection and protective clothing while in the area. “USDA has not and is not taking this health problem seriously,” said Marjorie Galanos, a financial analyst for USDA who said her father died of asbestos poisoning in 2003 due to his work installing and repairing air conditioners. “It is insulting.”

After OSHA completes an investigation, the findings are eventually made public, whether or not the employer is being cited for wrongdoing. 

The controversy comes amid the ongoing struggle between the USDA and its unions over the telecommuting policy introduced by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Union leaders argue that the current situation has been made worse by his new requirement that many employees be in the office at least four out of every five days. This “OneUSDA” policy is something Perdue compared with the strategy of a fictional high school basketball coach in the movie “Hoosiers.” 

“He says, ‘Five players on the floor functioning as one single team: team, team, team,’” Perdue told employees in a December video announcing the change. At an April congressional hearing, Perdue said telecommuting “became an entitlement” and thus, “in some of the processes there … things were not moving nearly as fast.”

Union leaders argue that the crackdown on telecommuting imposes a burden on working parents, causes long commutes that burn time and fossil fuel and reneges on a work-life balance commitment that attracted some employees to the agency in the first place. 

Telecommuting “doesn’t prevent folks from working together,” said Juan McCoy, an employee of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and a local union president. “Forcing them to be in the office four days a week doesn’t necessarily force collaboration.”

To contact the author of this story: Josh Eidelson in Palo Alto at [email protected]

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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