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Return to Office? How About Never, Social Security Union Says

May 8, 2020, 4:56 PM

Telework at the Social Security Administration is boosting call center answer rates and otherwise improving customer service, the leader of a union that represents about 25,000 field office and call center workers says.

The agency should allow employees to continue teleworking to the maximum extent possible even after the Covid-19 pandemic abates, said Ralph de Juliis, president of Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees. The union is asking the agency to consider a plan that would allow the SSA to close most of its 1,300 field offices in the U.S. and save hundreds of millions of dollars on facility costs, he said. Though the agency has clashed with its unions in the past over telework, de Juliis said he’s hopeful agency officials are seeing the benefits now that most employees are working from home.

“If they want to go that way, they have the union’s support,” he said.

Call answer rates since the SSA began allowing most of its more than 55,000 employees to telework—including the field office and call center employees—are up from about 70% to about 95%, and employees for the first time in many years can schedule next-day phone appointments for many agency customers, he said. The agency has been able to safeguard customers’ sensitive personal information by using virtual private networks to encrypt communications, de Juliis said.

The agency told the union on Thursday, in response to a request for bargaining over a list of Covid-19 issues sent to the SSA on May 1, that it’s too early to make decisions about reopening offices, de Juliis said, adding that SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul hasn’t responded to an April 24 letter from the union outlining the plan to move to maximum telework on a permanent basis.

The Social Security Administration didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on whether it would consider permanently moving to maximum telework or on service improvements that the union said had occurred during the first five weeks of nearly 100% telework.

During the five weeks before the pandemic caused most agency employees to work from home, 444,494 callers got through to an SSA employee, and 77,248 callers didn’t get through to an employee, the union said. During the first five weeks of maximum telework, 555,267 callers got through to an SSA employee and 47,581 callers didn’t get through to an employee, the council said.

‘Not a Perfect Match’

A professional group that represents attorneys and other advocates for Social Security recipients said the agency must maintain a strong physical presence for people who depend on its services.

The SSA “has done a good job of adapting to a very difficult situation, but the services that they are providing now are not a perfect match for the services they were providing before, some of which already had room for improvement,” said Stacy Cloyd, director of Policy and Administrative Advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

“Social Security beneficiaries are disproportionately older or have disabilities. Some are homeless,” Cloyd said. “We support people having options for accurate and timely services, but in-person services will need to be one of options for some people and some workloads.”

Telework Tug-of-War

The Social Security Administration and AFGE reached a new collective bargaining agreement in October that restricted telework at the agency. The agency changed its stance once the Covid-19 pandemic made allowing widespread telework a necessity. AFGE, the largest federal employee union, is also touting the EPA’s telework program as boosting productivity during the pandemic.

Federal unions, which fought with the Trump administration for years over attempts by agencies to limit telework, called for governmentwide telework at the onset of the pandemic. They’re now asking agencies to continue telework for eligible employees while making sure that any return to government offices is safe. However, there hasn’t been a widespread call to eliminate federal offices and have most employees work from home on a permanent basis.

The White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, which together determine the government’s HR policies for about 2.1 million civilian employees, have issued numerous guidances on how federal agencies should respond to the pandemic. But the administration is leaving it up to individual agencies to determine their own back-to-work plans, consistent with an OMB memo issued last month.

Having agency leaders and managers make decisions based on their unique workforces, missions, and locations will give the government flexibility as it looks to bring agency employees back to their regular workplaces, Michael Rigas, the acting deputy director for management at OMB and the acting OPM director, said on ABC7’s Government Matters show May 3. This is better than a “one-size-fits-all” approach, Rigas said, adding that the government doesn’t have information from agencies on the number of teleworking employees but intends to collect that information once the pandemic has abated.

“As conditions warrant across each state, Federal agencies are working to return to normal operations,” an OMB spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday. Federal workers “have shown tremendous fortitude in keeping the U.S. strong throughout this emergency,” the spokesman said.

Better Distribution of Work?

A permanent move to telework would enable a better distribution of work, de Juliis said in the union’s April 24 letter to Saul.

Currently, he said, some SSA offices—particularly those in urban areas—handle a much larger number of claims per employee than others. But the offices with the most work could change over time as “migration patterns” change in the U.S., de Juliis said.

“In the long-term, a virtual workforce would allow phone calls, initial claims, and post-entitlement actions to be taken in a timely manner, from anywhere at any time. Managers would be able to assign casework equitably, ensuring the public receives timely service and driving up customer satisfaction metrics. Ultimately, there is no reason a claim from Chicago could not be handled by a specialist in Wyoming,” he wrote.

Support From Other Unions

Unions that represent other employees at the agency say they also support continued telework.

“Telework should be utilized to the greatest extent possible because it best serves the American public,” said Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, which represents about 1,300 administrative law judges at the agency.

“There has been no decline in public service and productivity, and we believe this policy should continue,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 2,100 attorneys and other employees at the SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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