SSA announces hiring freeze at headquarters, regional components

The Social Security Administration has implemented a hiring freeze across much of the agency’s headquarters.

SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul announced the hiring freeze, effective July 31, in a memo to senior staff, which Federal News Network obtained.

An SSA spokesman confirmed the hiring freeze and said it was implemented to ensure agency resources are directly focused on customer service priorities.

“This freeze applies to all headquarters components and their respective regional offices,” the spokesman said. “Direct public service and workload positions and workload positions in the teleservice centers, processing centers, area and local field offices and state disability determination services are exempt from the hiring freeze.”

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The SSA spokesman did not answer questions about the anticipated length of the hiring freeze. Saul’s memo to senior staff doesn’t mention a timeline either.

“He has asked the deputy commissioners to marshal all resources to improve public service,” internal guidance on the SSA hiring freeze, which Federal News Network obtained, reads. “Recognizing that there are many other significant positions that support front line service and play a role in achieving his commitments, he has also implemented an exception process to ensure that components are able to fill other critical positions.”

SSA headquarters and component offices impacted by the hiring freeze can’t establish new positions or post new external or internal vacancy announcements, according to the agency guidance.

New appointments for administrative law judges, senior administrative law judges and administrative appeals judges are also prohibited.

In addition, the hiring freeze blocks permanent and temporary promotions for SSA employees, with the exception of career ladder promotions, according to Saul’s memo.

Filling open positions through appointments or competitive or non-competitive promotions, reassignments or other details are also prohibited.

SSA can’t extend temporary assignments or make them permanent, according to the agency’s hiring freeze guidance.

Existing requests to post new vacancy announcements will be returned to the original component office, according to separate guidance from SSA’s Office of Personnel, which Federal News Network also obtained.

Agency component leaders can request exemptions to the hiring freeze, though SSA has already approved several. Some exemptions, according to SSA’s internal guidance, include:

  • Hiring readers, personal assistants and translators in response to reasonable accommodations requests under the Rehabilitation Act,
  • Converting recent graduates, fellows and employees with specific conversion authorities,
  • Processing within-grade increases, changes in tenure or career ladder promotions, and,
  • Processing personnel actions covered by a settlement agreement.

The commissioner can personally approve a hiring exemption, although SSA components who seek one should file a request on the agency’s intranet page, according the freeze guidance.

Both the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union have members at SSA. The unions were unsure how the hiring freeze might impact their bargaining units, especially since most of their SSA employees work at customer-facing field offices and organizations.

“NTEU has a number of questions about the hiring freeze and its impact on the employees at the SSA Office of Hearings Operations, and is working to get those questions answered by SSA management,” the union said in a statement to Federal News Network. 

Saul is still relatively new to SSA, as he was sworn in as commissioner in mid-June. Like Saul, other agency leaders have implemented hiring freezes in the past as an attempt to take stock of existing personnel, programs and resources after entering office.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a hiring freeze shortly after entering office in 2017. Secretary Mike Pompeo later lifted it after officially replacing him in 2018.

President Donald Trump also implemented a governmentwide hiring freeze as one of his first acts in office. The White House at the time said the freeze was part of the new administration’s attempts to work with agency transition teams to find new efficiencies and eliminate duplication.

The Trump administration formally lifted the hiring freeze roughly three months later and announced a comprehensive plan to reorganize government agencies.

It’s unclear how SSA’s hiring freeze will fit in with other changes the agency has made to its workforce in recent months.

SSA in April offered Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA), otherwise known as “early outs,” to eligible employees. It was at least the third time in seven years that SSA has attempted to reduce the average age and size of its workforce with early-outs.

A May report from the Government Accountability Office said 27.3% of SSA employees were eligible to retire in fiscal 2017, below the 31.6% average across government.

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