Teleworking: Temporary setback or death spiral?

The federal government’s half-million telecommuters are watching, many in horror, what is happening at the Social Security Administration where 11,000 teleworkers have been ordered back to the office.

SSA had one of the largest groups of teleworkers in government until it ended the six-year experiment for workers under a contract with the American Federation of Government Employees.  Another 2,100 under a separate contract with the National Treasury Employees Union will continue to telework, at least for now. But employees in a dozen other agencies are worried that their teleworking arrangements may be next.

Many believe the crackdown is part of a Trump administration program to thump bureaucrats — as in “drain the swamp” — and federal worker unions, all of which opposed candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The administration is also cutting back on “official time” for on-the-clock employees who act as union representatives working on union issues, but paid for by the taxpayers and working out of government-supplied offices on site.

Others say that teleworking has gone unchecked and unmonitored for too long, that some programs are run as employee morale-builders, not for the good of customers of government agencies that often deal directly with taxpayer-customers either face-to-face or by telephone.

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Some say that both sides — the pro-teleworkers versus those who believe more supervision and customer service is needed — have forgotten the core of teleworking, which is to provide continuity of government during local weather or a national emergency like Sept. 11, 2001.

Largely left out of the conversation are the employees themselves who, for the most part, say teleworking is a win-win proposition, that it helps cut down traffic and pollution, boosts morale and productivity, and keeps federal operation running the critical times.

So let’s hear from some real in-the-trenches teleworkers around the country, starting with Scott in Kansas City who said: “I’ve been taking advantage of our telework program, which allows me to work from home one day a week, for a number of years. It’s improved my work-life balance, allowed me to handle day-to-day emergencies or wait for a repairman, and get my work done quickly and efficiently. I spend less time in the car commuting, and on days when inclement weather and snow would otherwise prevent me from going to work, I’m able to continue to serve Social Security recipients uninterrupted.

“Telework is proven to improve morale, boost retention and help with recruitment. We should invest in a program that helps employees, not take it away. If employees aren’t able to do their jobs effectively, taxpayers and Social Security recipients will ultimately pay the price. Is that what the Trump administration wants? We need Congress to step in and tell SSA to reopen our contract and fix this.”

Another SSA worker, Chris, wrote: “As a federal employee here in Corpus Christi, I’m proud to work for the Social Security Administration. Each day my colleagues and I provide essential services to millions of people who rely on Social Security at our local field office. But I’m troubled by the new contract that the agency just forced our employee union to accept … One of the rollbacks that may take place is a cut to telework.

“Telework is an essential workplace protection that allows employees to save time and money on a long commute and instead get work done quickly and efficiently. I can work one day a week from the comfort of my home, avoid distractions, wait for a repairman or handle other things that may come up while doing everything I would have done at the office. Telework is a standard part of the private sector and has been available to SSA employees for a number of years. The federal government knows that telework is key to employee productivity, recruitment, and retention, and to take it away would only undermine Social Security. This contract will have widespread ramifications for employees here in Texas and around the country.”

Another SSA worker in Oklahoma City, going by T.P., said: “Recently, our agency forced the employee union to accept the most anti-employee contract in the agency’s 40-year history. This contract will make several cuts engineered to undermine the productivity of SSA employees, including the rollback of telework. Telework is a key workplace protection that allows employees to handle unexpected events while also getting all their work done efficiently. I love telework because I can work from the comfort of my own home, avoid a long commute stuck in traffic, and get up and get started immediately on my work. I don’t have to waste money on gas, put wear and tear on my car, or deal with the everyday distractions that occur at the office.

“SSA employees are dedicated public servants who provide key Social Security benefits to millions of recipients in Oklahoma and across the country. I love that I can serve the public and have control over my work-life balance. To take away telework from thousands of SSA employees in Oklahoma and elsewhere would only undermine the vital work we do every day for the American people. Surely Commissioner Andrew Saul understands that the agency needs to support its employees in order to provide the best service? We need to invest in our public servants, not drive them away.”

Or take this note from D.K. in Birmingham, Alabama, who has been with SSA for more than 25 years: “I have been under the telework pilot for over four years. I am a very productive worker and telework has made me a better and more productive employee. I get more cases done at home and usually work 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m  on my two telework days, allowing me to build up time and also produce more work. On my normal commute it takes me about 30 minutes to get to work and leaving about an hour or more due to the expressway and additional traffic.

“This is a very unfair practice, because I think telework improves the service of Social Security for our millions of beneficiaries. To take away telework makes no sense. If the federal government wants to improve the quality of the work we provide, it needs to invest in its employees. Telework is key to employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.”

And finally, some thoughts from M.R. in West Palm Beach, Florida: “I am writing because I just heard that the agency has forced our union to accept the most anti-employee contract in the agency’s 40-year history. Federal employees across the country, including right here in Palm Beach, are facing severe cuts to workplace protections and union representation. One of the biggest changes would be a rollback in telework that has been in place for years for Social Security employees.

“Telework is a huge help for employees who face long commutes or could benefit from a more flexible schedule. I’m able to telework one day a week, saving over an hour each day I would have otherwise spent in a car. I’m also saving money I would have spent on gas and parking. Telework not only improves employee productivity, it increases employee retention and recruitment. Social Security provides key benefits to millions of Americans each day, and in order for us to continue to keep providing top quality service, we need to be supported as employees.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

From 1857-1859 the federal government tested the use of camels instead of horses and mules to travel a new road built between Fort Defiance, Arizona — then New Mexico — and the Colorado River to the west where it formed the boundary with California. Lt. Edward Beale was given 25 camels to crisscross the desert route. Beale said he “would rather have one camel than four mules.”

Source: Atlas Obscura

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