Administrative law judges at the Social Security Administration are being told to report to work for hearings this week, even though the agency’s customers no longer are required to show up in person for the hearings because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The judges were told they can begin working from home for all agency matters—including hearings—on March 30, according to Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, an AFL-CIO affiliate that represents about 1,300 judges at the agency. In the meantime, they’ve been instructed to report to hearing offices to initiate telephone hearings with SSA claimants, McIntosh said Monday. Only judges conducting phone hearings and support staff assisting them are required to go to the hearing offices, she said.
“This week, the agency will complete the orderly transition for all hearing office employees, including ALJs, to maximum telework,” Social Security Administration spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said in an email when asked for comment.
The dispute over the pace at which telework for hearings is being rolled out at the Social Security Administration comes as federal employee unions across the government say they’re frustrated that telework isn’t available for all eligible employees and as the White House calls on agencies to minimize face-to-face contacts for federal employees. Unions represent about half of the nation’s 2.1 million civilian federal workers.
Shelter in Place?
Joseph Lytle, associate commissioner of the SSA’s Office of Executive Operations and Human Resources, told union leaders Friday that some management judges will begin conducting hearings from home, McIntosh said. There are about 200 management judges at the agency, McIntosh said.
Some hearing offices in hard-hit areas of the country, such as Seattle and New York, have been closed because of the crisis, McIntosh said. In addition, judges with underlying health conditions are being allowed to stay home. But being 60 years-old or older—which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as a risk factor for contracting the novel coronavirus—is not considered a reason by itself to stay home, McIntosh said.
The union is particularly concerned about ALJs who work in offices in areas where the population is under shelter-in-place orders, McIntosh said. In Puerto Rico, for example, judges are being told to report to work for hearings despite a shelter-in-place order, she said.
“I am very concerned,” she said.