After more than a year of tense negotiations, the Social Security Administration and the American Federation of Government Employees have finally reached an agreement on a new, six-year contract.
The new collective bargaining agreement, which SSA management and AFGE representatives signed late last week, settles months of disagreements between the two parties and offers both some stability days before the injunction on the president’s May 2018 executive orders was lifted.
“The new contract reflects the agency’s priority on public service and will become effective on Oct. 27,” an SSA spokeswoman said in a statement to Federal News Network. “The agency thanks both the AFGE and Social Security negotiation teams for their many months of effort and success in reaching the new agreement.”
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in September brought AFGE representatives and SSA management together to begin discussing how the two parties would move forward after a June decision from the Federal Service Impasses Panel.
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In total, the impasse panel ruled on four provisions for management, six with slight modifications for management, one provision for AFGE and another for the union with slight modifications.
SSA wanted to allow five days for negotiations with the union. AFGE proposed four weeks, the union said.
Both parties struggled to agree on a bargaining process — specifically how long they could negotiate and what specifically they should negotiate over.
In the end, the union faced a decision: drop all ongoing litigation related to the SSA bargaining agreement, which included two court cases and nine grievances, and negotiate with the agency — or have the impasses panel rule on the remaining articles of the existing AFGE contract. SSA, meanwhile, said it would begin to implement the provisions of the president’s workforce executive orders under the second option.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last week denied federal employee unions a chance for a rehearing on the merits, a decision which came during the SSA-AFGE negotiations.
“We had two options available to us. Neither option was particularly good,” Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents employees at SSA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, said in an interview. “One was a choice between a certain annihilation of representation at SSA, as well as long-held employee rights and benefits and privileges, versus a chance at continued survival.”
In the end, the union decided to negotiate a new deal with the agency.
“It would have stripped us those areas in the panel order where the union prevailed, specifically those areas such as protection of employee rights to file grievances over performance appraisals, performance actions, severe disciplinary actions and other matters,” Couture said.
The new agreement gives a bank of 125,000 hours of official time — half of the official time bank AFGE representatives had under the previous contract but 75,000 more hours than what the impasses panel granted in its recent decision.
Under the president’s workforce executive orders, AFGE representatives would have received a bank of 45,000 hours, one hour per employee in the SSA bargaining unit.
The agreement allows 20 union representatives to use no more than 840 hours of official time a year, meaning those employees could spend about 40% of their time on union activities and the remaining 60% of their time performing the functions for which they were initially hired.
All other union representatives have a limit of 400 hours of official time a year, meaning these employees can spend as much as 19% of their time on union activities. Both of these scenarios give AFGE representatives more official time to work with than what’s described in the president’s executive orders.
“The fight is not over, but at least we will have some time and resources to conduct a fight,” AFGE wrote in a summary of its new contract to its members. “There will no longer be any union officials who on 100% official time, 75% official time or even 50% official time. Every union official will be doing production work and we will be feeling, first hand, the same pains and abuses that every other worker feels.”
Couture, who has met with new SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul twice since he took office this summer, said he and other union representatives explained why preserving more official time would allow union representatives to devote their time to resolving employee concerns, which leads to a safer, more productive workforce.
“The commissioner had stated to us that he wanted to have a strong and positive relationship with the unions at SSA, that he wanted to improve working conditions for employees,” Couture said. “Everybody is pretty well aware that SSA’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores for the last few years are pretty poor. Also, the commissioner wanted to really bring in employee ideas and engage employees in labor in finding ways to address, tackle and solve a lot of SSA’s service delivery issues.”
Beyond the changes to official time, AFGE also managed to score some agency office space, another contrast to the president’s workforce executive orders and the June decision from the impasses panel.
In addition, the bargaining agreement allows the union to file grievances on disputes related to an employee’s performance appraisal or other matters — another activity that the president’s workforce executive orders would have prevented.
FMCS was congratulatory of the agency and union for the agreement the two parties reached.
“The dedication and commitment of everyone involved in these difficult negotiations were the reason a deal was achieved,” Richard Giacolone, an agency commissioner and the president’s nominee to serve as FMCS director, said Monday in a statement. “This resolution is a testament to the power of good faith bargaining, where both sides are willing to come to the table, put aside their differences and get to work on a mutual agreement that addressed the interests of both sides. I commend the leadership of SSA and AFGE for their commitment to resolving these difficult issues in the spirit of constructive engagement.”
Maintaining the status quo with telework was one of the top priorities for the union, Couture said, but it was one of the few areas where AFGE and SSA couldn’t compromise.
Three field office managers also noted several offices with increased wait times due to a lack of in-person availability.
The June decision from the impasses panel allows each SSA deputy commissioner to determine whether employees who currently telework should be allowed to continue.
AFGE wanted to keep existing telework policies in place.
“It was a priority for us to try to keep what we had, recognizing that in this environment, achieving gains was not likely to occur,” Couture said.
The union said it’s concerned SSA component leaders may make their own changes now to existing telework policies. The Agriculture and Education Departments, along with a component within the Department of Health and Human Services, have limited telework to one day a week.