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Bedbugs, Bad Air Make Tulsa Social Security Office Unsafe: Union

Nov. 20, 2019, 8:48 PM

Administrative law judges at the Social Security Administration are endangered by a bedbug “infestation” and high carbon dioxide levels at the agency’s Tulsa, Okla., hearing office, according to the judges’ union.

The bedbug issues have gone on “for far too long,” said Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, which represents about 1,400 Social Security judges. McIntosh said another spraying to kill the bedbugs—which also endanger the public—is scheduled for Nov. 23, but she’s skeptical that it will resolve the issue.

“We strongly disagree with the AALJ’s characterization of the Tulsa Hearing Office as ‘unsafe’ and ‘unhealthy,’” Social Security Administration spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said in a statement Nov. 20. Since June, only four bedbugs have been found in traps in the office space. During an October inspection, “a canine alerted but no actual bed bugs were found. Nevertheless, the space was treated as a result of the canine reaction,” she said.

Allegations that the agency isn’t responding adequately come during a labor dispute between the SSA and the judges’ union.

Bedbugs were first found at the Tulsa office in the summer of 2018 and efforts to remediate the problem since the building’s landlord was given responsibility for doing so in April 2019 have been unsuccessful, according to a grievance the union filed in September. That grievance was denied by the SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations, which said the elevated carbon dioxide levels didn’t pose a health or safety risk and had been addressed, while the agency “timely addressed and continues to address, on an as needed basis, the issue with the presence of bed bugs in the office.”

A second grievance filed by the union Nov. 14 says both the bedbug and air quality issues are continuing and that this violates labor contract provisions requiring the agency to address health and safety issues. “Bedbugs have been found in the hearing rooms on multiple occasions” since June and three staff members have carried the bugs home with them, leading to a “mental and emotional toll” on all employees, the union said.

The agency has reached labor agreements with its two largest unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, which together represent more than 47,000 SSA employees. The Trump administration remains locked in disputes with a number of unions—including the AFGE—at other agencies. About half of the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers are represented by unions.

Monitoring, Town Hall Meetings

Ongoing air quality monitoring has confirmed that carbon dioxide levels have been maintained at “recommended levels for three consecutive months,” Tiggemann added.

“It is unfortunate that the AALJ has decided, once again, to mischaracterize and omit important information that would lay out a more accurate account of current events. We have held town halls with our staff in the Tulsa office to ensure our employees are informed about the ongoing management plan,” she said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Oct. 23 referenced the bedbugs in a “notice of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions” to the General Services Administration, which handles most of the federal government’s real estate transactions. The notice called on the GSA to either appeal the findings or remediate the issues at the Tulsa office.

Both the carbon dioxide levels and the bedbug issues have been addressed, the GSA said Nov. 20.

“GSA and the building owner developed and initiated a pest control bed bug treatment plan to be performed monthly alternating between visual inspections, canine inspections, and chemical treatments. Inspections completed on August 17, September 14 and October 16 showed no visual evidence of bed bug activity,” the agency said in a statement.

Ongoing Labor Dispute

In the most recent chapter in the dispute between the SSA and the judges’ union in October, a Federal Labor Relations Authority investigator concluded that the agency interfered with the right of ALJs who also act as union officials to represent their coworkers. An agency spokesman said then that the SSA was “perplexed” by the union’s assertions and would “follow appropriate FLRA processes to address this matter.” The allegations of bad-faith bargaining stem from a “routine discussion of labor-management issues” that the union didn’t raise concerns about until nearly six months later, said Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service determined in June that the two sides had reached an impasse in their labor talks, giving the SSA the right to ask the Federal Service Impasses Panel to resolve the dispute. The union is alleging before the FSIP that the agency is negotiating in bad faith with the union and that the FSIP doesn’t have the authority to resolve the labor dispute because its members are appointed by the president without being confirmed by the Senate.

The Social Security Administration is hoping the judges’ union will follow the AFGE and NTEU’s lead and reach a new labor agreement with the agency, Tiggemann said.

“SSA looks forward to a fully finalized contract with AALJ so that we can focus the full efforts of our administrative law judges on improving the vital services we provide to the American public,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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