Economic Development Administration on ‘brink of collapse’ amid telework dispute, union tells leadership

Union members called on EDA leaders to engage in meetings and to come to an agreement on return-to-office policies in a letter obtained by FedScoop.
United States Department of Commerce Building (Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

A letter penned by union officers at the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration describes unrest over the agency’s telework policy and tensions in communications with leadership.

The correspondence from the officers of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3810 to Assistant Secretary Alejandra Y. Castillo, which was obtained by FedScoop, alleges that agency leaders haven’t taken union input seriously. It seeks several actions to remedy the situation, including a memorandum of understanding on the agency’s “return-to-work” policy and mediation services to “reestablish a healthy relationship.”

If those goals aren’t met in a “reasonable timeframe,” the union “will not hesitate to file an unfair labor charge against EDA with the National Labor Relations Board,” citing support from AFGE and the AFL-CIO, with which it’s affiliated.

“We have continuously expressed that the Agency’s ‘return-to-office’ policy will result in increased turnover and seriously jeopardize the Agency’s ability to function, yet conversations on how to best address our concerns have completely stalled,” according to the letter dated May 28. 


The union further stated the agency is losing workers to other organizations that provide telework and cited a recent member survey that it said paints “a picture of an agency on the brink of collapse.” That survey, the letter said, found more than half of respondents were applying for positions outside the agency and nearly two-thirds would accept a job outside EDA.

“I don’t think this is a problem that’s specific to EDA. I think this is a governmentwide problem,” Ryan Zamarripa, the vice president of Local 3810, said of agency telework policies in an interview with FedScoop. “I think that we’re going to see a pretty decreased ability in the executive branch to carry out its duties if we continue to go against the grain on what we know is an effective way to work.”

Zamarripa, who noted he was speaking in his capacity as an officer for the local and not for the agency, said the union has received a response from Castillo that the letter was received and she plans to respond in full.

In a statement emailed to FedScoop addressing the letter, Castillo and Ben Page, EDA’s chief operating officer and deputy assistant secretary for economic development, said leadership “has strived to engage and maintain a healthy working relationship with the union and the employees it represents.”

“Throughout this period of exponential programmatic growth, EDA’s leadership team, our union, and our stakeholders have engaged in frequent, real-time dialogue about where we are, and where we are headed, including in the thoughtful planning for our required increased office attendance,” Castillo and Page wrote. “These conversations have happened both privately, as well as through frequent leadership team calls and open town halls.”


As with the private sector, pandemic-era telework policies in federal agencies and plans to bring workers back into physical offices have been the subject of occasionally contentious debate. The Biden administration has recently expanded overseas telework efforts and officials have noted benefits of preserving at least some remote work options in hearings on Capitol Hill

Those policies have come under fire from congressional Republicans who have questioned agency oversight of remote workers and their levels of productivity. But there have been some bipartisan efforts on telework policy, including bills aimed at establishing transparency and management practices for remote positions and promoting better data collection to provide insights about telework performance. 

The EDA focuses on supporting economic development in regions across the country by providing funding and resources to communities. According to Zamarripa, the union represents roughly 70 EDA workers in roles throughout the United States. Over the past few years, those workers have rolled out billions of dollars in federal initiatives such as the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act.

During the height of the pandemic, the EDA, like other agencies, was fully remote, Zamarripa said. Currently, the agency requires workers to come in two days per pay period, which is roughly once a week for most people, he said. While workers have been told there will be an increase in required in-office presence, Zamarripa said “we haven’t really received clear guidance on what the future holds.”

The union’s letter said that the EDA “is rapidly approaching a staffing level inconsistent with its current workload” and alleged mismanagement of funds and retention issues were the cause.


“This is not only due to the gross mismanagement of federal monies at the Agency leadership level that resulted in mass layoffs but also due to the Agency leadership’s inability to retain staff,” the union officers said.

Zamarripa said the layoffs mentioned in the letter were announced in September. Citing funding issues, the agency gave some workers three-month notices, told others they would be getting notices in the future, or informed workers that their contract wouldn’t be extended, he said.

Castillo and Page pushed back on the accusation of mismanagement in their statement, contending that “EDA appropriately managed the resources that were provided, leveraging term employees to address an unprecedented surge in work without leaving an unsustainable fiscal burden.” 

In addition to the memorandum of understanding and the mediation services, the union also requested that Castillo attend Labor Management Council meetings until the “quality of dialogue” is to the satisfaction of the union officers. It cited a March executive order from the Biden administration that, among other things, directed agencies to “allow employees and their union representatives to have pre-decisional involvement in workplace matters, including … discussions with management for the development of joint solutions to workplace challenges.” 

“We just want a reset,” Zamarripa said, adding it isn’t clear the information they’re relaying in meetings is getting to the assistant secretary. He said the union wants Castillo to know “what’s actually happening in these meetings and how the labor side of these conversations is perceiving them.”

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