Why did SSA administrative law judges still need to come in?

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They can totally work from home. Everyone’s been telework-enabled for years. But even as the virus threat widened, the administrative law judges of the Social Security Administration were told they’d need to work in their offices one more week, ending today. The agency seemed reluctant to go ahead on telework. It seemed weird to this judge, who’s also president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, Melissa McIntosh. She joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to explain what’s going on.

Interview transcript:

Melissa McIntosh: I think, reluctantly is very fair. There’s been a lot of uneasiness among my judges here at the Social Security Administration. The agency has provided limited communications with us. They have agreed to permit up to conduct our disability hearing from our alternative duty stations, really our home, starting next Monday. However, we’re still required to come into the office to conduct hearing this week. And that’s very concerning, in particular, in those locations where there are shelter in place, borders.

Tom Temin: Got it. So let me ask you this then, do you have access from home to all of the applications that you need online? All the case management and so forth that you would have if you were in the office?

Melissa McIntosh: Absolutely. We are almost completely electronic. Our case files are electronic. We are able to facilitate these hearings from anywhere, so long as we have our work laptop.

Tom Temin: Well, that’s good. I mean, that is to say you were actually telework ready in the first place.

Melissa McIntosh: Well most of us do telework. We telework on non-hearing days already, so this should be a smooth transition. However, there are a lot of questions and concerns, we’re waiting for guidance. The agency hasn’t provided any. I’ve certainly asked concerning the transition, but I can assure you the judges here are absolutely committed to make this work. We understand how important these hearings are to are claimants, and we definitely are committed to doing whatever it takes to proceed with them. We are very concerned about being order into work when there are shelter in place orders when its quite obvious, as we all know, and as we will next week, we can conduct these hearings from our home.

Tom Temin: And how do you do that from the home? Is it Facetime or Skype or what?

Melissa McIntosh: No, they will be telephonic. We have software to be able to receive calls, and frankly, I do not know the logistics of it because we haven’t received guidance on it, but we do have software capability. I just was testing mine a few moments ago, insuring I could not only make a call that receive a call. So we’ll be on a secure line, someone, and I’m not entirely sure who that will be, I believe a support staff person from their location will facilitate the call and we will proceed. But it will not be video

Tom Temin: Got it. Will it be recorded.

Melissa McIntosh: Absolutely. It has to be recorded for the regulation, and we’re very might be recorded.

Tom Temin: Let me ask you this. Sometimes I’m imagining in disability types of claims hearings, there might be visual evidence, or you might need to see the person with one leg shorter than the other is a result of an accident or missing something. You can’t do that with a purely telephonic hearing. Will that affect the efficacy of this at all?

Melissa McIntosh: That’s a really interesting question. I think at the end of the day, we’re not medical professionals, so we don’t have the expertise to make an assessment, in a way, say of assessing a physical attribute as you just described. However, I would not be genuine to say that I did not personally think in person hearings our superior, but also it’s the right of the client to choose a phone hearing that can facilitate getting a decision sooner. I think that they are appropriate. I I feel confident we can always ensure due process through a phone hearing.

Tom Temin: And there are much larger employee groups set Social Security represented by other gigantic unions. Are you in touch with them on any common issues related to this whole telework, coronavirus, everybody for himself, type of situation?

Melissa McIntosh: Well absolutely. And there haven’t been called with all three unions and NTEU, AFGE and ourselves, and in particular, AFGE has emphasized, and I have agreed, that the work at home by quarantine, which is our standard now, if you have an underlying medical condition, like a respiratory issue, you do not have to report into the office, and you don’t have to go into the office this week. This is the final week. However, although the CDC specified age, the Social Security Administration will not recognize age as an underlying issue that would make you more susceptible to the virus. It was an individual applied for the ability to not go in, say this week, here she was denied if it was solely based on being aged 60 or over. I think that’s highly problematic.

Tom Temin: Because I guess in some offices you do have a slightly aging workforce in Social Security.

Melissa McIntosh: I can tell you this. For my judges, it’s a very rigorous process to become administrative law judge. You have to demonstrate a great deal of experience. So it’s fair to say that we do have a large number of individuals to would fall in that category. And the CDC has said those 60 and over are more at risk.

Tom Temin: Sure, And how would you characterize general morale and attitude among your judges and what you know of elsewhere in Social Security?

Melissa McIntosh: It’s very unfortunate. Leadership does matter, and leaders do set the tone and so we’re looking to our leaders to give a guidance, and in particular, right now my judges are very focused on how are we going to make these hearings work. We care very deeply about it. For a group of individuals who lost 56,000 hours of earned leave, meeting agency expectations, So the messages all weekend I was receiving were very specific to I’m concerned about this. Is this going to work? How are they going to connect the phones? So there is unease, and we are looking to leadership to give us that guidance and further to assure that there is a concern about our well being. And that’s the issue this week, a final week while we’re in the office, that hearings were not perhaps moved to another day or hearings were not done via telephone from our alternative duty stations this week, even though we all know how critical it is to shelter in place so we don’t spread this virus.