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The Social Security Administration came out last or nearly last in nearly every measure in the recent pulse survey that came out from the Office of Management and Budget. Its union employees say that’s because management has not been bargaining in good faith on a new contract, and the issue has been dragging on for years. For one view, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the president of AFGE Council 220 Ralph de Juliis.
Tom Temin: Before we get to the survey, I just wanted to get an update on collective bargaining. Because this has been going for years if I’m correct, trying to establish a new contract between AFGE and Social Security. Where do things stand now?
Ralph de Juliis: We have a contract that was done in the Trump administration with a gun put to our head, that they would implement the president’s executive orders unless we agreed to their proposals. And their proposals took away a lot of employee rights, took away a lot of union rights. The thing that employees are most upset about was losing the Vision Program that assisted in paying for glasses and also losing telework. Because the contract let management take telework away willy nilly, and the union employees had no rights to protest it.
Tom Temin: Right. So now that administration is gone and Andrew Saul is gone. And what’s the status at this point with the new acting commissioner, now a year in?
Ralph de Juliis: Acting Commissioner [Kilolo] Kijakazi and the Biden administration had promised a new era in paper relations. We have not seen that. Acting Commissioner Kijakazi has left in place all of the Trump appointees and when, for instance, they told us that they were going to be ending work at home by quarantine, and we would go back to the 2019 contract, which lets them do whatever they want, whenever they want to whomever they want on telework, and they don’t want to change anything. We have repeatedly asked the agency to follow Biden Executive Order 14003 and bargain over permissive subjects. They don’t. We’ve asked them to reopen the contract and completely get rid of the Trump contract. And they came up with 50 pages of sophistry to explain why they don’t have to. So we are not seeing the Biden administration’s good intentions being implemented in Acting Commissioner Kijakazi.
Tom Temin: Interesting. So it’s against this backdrop that the pulse survey arrives. And your bargaining unit Council 220 is about how many members?
Ralph de Juliis: Council 220 represents approximately 27,000 SSA employees from St. Thomas to Pago Pago.
Tom Temin: Got it, so it’s a good percentage of the employees. And SSA for whatever reason had the highest participation rate in the pulse survey, I think of any agency, correct?
Tom Temin: So with respect to the questions that were asked in the pulse survey: “I feel Management supports me, I feel I have someone to talk to, this is a place where I belong” – all of these questions, from my reading of the results SSA wasn’t horrible, but it was still pretty much below the average on every question. And what do you attribute that to?
Ralph de Juliis: Employees are really unhappy with how they’re being treated, when they’re working at home. For instance, when you were in the office, you were interviewing, you could get up, get a photocopy, you come back so you weren’t chained to anything. Because you could walk around with your headset, and you could still handle the people on the phone. Right now that we’re at home, we can’t print at home. So management is constantly looking to see why people aren’t answering the phone, what they’re doing. They’re looking when employees put a member of the public on hold to go to a different computer screen to ask someone a question. It’s that level of micromanagement that is driving employees crazy. Employees will be on the phone from nine o’clock until about four o’clock when the queue ends. And then management is constantly sending instant messages or emails during the day. “Where are you? You need to answer more phone calls. Don’t forget you have to get this case done.” The employees are doing more work for the agency’s own statistics on telework than they ever did before. In terms of answering phone calls, before telework we would lose 25% to 30% of our phone calls. People just got tired of waiting. Now we have a much, much higher answer rate. Before, if you or a family members needed to call for an appointment, a good part of the time we would tell you, we just have to take your name and number we can’t give you an appointment. Our appointment calendar is only out 60 days and there are no appointments available. Now for just about any sort of case, we can give you an appointment within 72 hours. And if we can’t, it’s not because there’s not an employee who can’t do it. It’s because management hasn’t put that kind of interview on the appointment calendar.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE Council 220. So it sounds like you’re saying the public is being served better than it was before telework. And yet, it’s worse for employees because of this kind of hyper elevated work level.
Ralph de Juliis: Correct. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the GAO study about missing mail. Management’s only job when we went to telework, what was to come to the office to be time and attendance for employees, cover people who might have called in sick, and to do the mail. The mail wasn’t being done, because managers weren’t doing it. If you can imagine having a mail room run by people who make between $90,000 and $130,000 a year, that’s the situation in Social Security. Acting Commissioner Kijakazi has not addressed those structural problems that the agency is still doing things the old way and management’s doing the mail, because they don’t trust employees. That really, really trickles down and results in the bad survey results you get because management can keep saying that employees are their greatest assets, but they don’t treat employees valuable. They don’t treat them with respect.
Tom Temin: And what is the agency telling you with respect to returning to the office, and also for the generalized reopening of the field offices for Social Security?
Ralph de Juliis: What they’re telling us now is we’ve gone to what’s called tier three of work at home by quarantine during the pandemic. Tier three means that most offices will be calling in, we thought it was 25% of the employees on a rotating basis. Well, we’ve had so much attrition that management basically decided to call back in enough people to fill 25% of the desks. And now we’re hearing that those people instead of doing dire need interviews in the office are being answered to call appointments on the phone, and to answer the general inquiry line, which is what we would call portable work, because it’s the kind of work we could do at home. So again, it’s for us a matter of management not managing properly, the most effectively, taking advantage of the employees and not bargaining with the union. We settled a ULP that they sent us home and they did bargain. We have the workplace safety protocols. We settled the ULP because management – that’s an unfair labor practice. Management refuse to bargain. That’s an unfair labor practice. It was settled by management saying all right, all right, we’ll go to the bargaining table. Yeah, all those things are impasse now. They basically came in and said, “Take a long walk off a short pier, it’s our way of the highway.” That was exactly what we got during the Trump administration, that has not changed under President Biden and his acting appointment as commissioner.
Tom Temin: Alright, so there’s a lot of parallel issues here, then there is the confusion over returning and how that would look like. And then there’s the contract itself, which is in place from the old administration. But let me ask you this, you said that the public is having shorter waits for telephone, shorter waits for appointments, I presume these are tele-appointments with a Social Security agent. So if you were to return back to the office, and everything went back to say, pre-2019, would the service levels go back down to where people couldn’t get appointments for two months?
Ralph de Juliis: We don’t see the agency’s plan to change that. And we have constantly been after that, to change that. We wanted telework to be a success because the employees love it. There are certain issues, especially when fraud is involved, where we actually have to see someone face to face. But otherwise, most things can be done over the phone. Now SSA, I was negotiator with the union on the vulnerable population liaison. That’s because they looked at the disability applications and found that disability applications were down and they said oh, it’s because the offices aren’t open and we can’t deal with – we’re not dealing with the vulnerable populations. When I started with SSA in 1978, we had a position called a field representative. It was their job to go out into the community and take care of vulnerable populations, especially individuals with mobility impairments, who couldn’t really deal with technology. Well, SSA has eliminated those positions. When I started in 1978, I hate to date myself, we had what were called contact stations. Those were places where Social Security would go out into the community, to a library, to City Hall to DHS once or twice a month or even a week. So people could come in to us, those were also all closed. They don’t have any idea what to do to make services more accessible, except to beat the employees and say, work harder, work harder.
Tom Temin: Alright, so then the basic situation with telework is the employees would like it, because of the productivity and the service to the public. If only the agency would stop making you crazy over it?
Ralph de Juliis: Yes.
Tom Temin: If I can summarize that correctly.
Ralph de Juliis: That is correct. I’ve had people who basically are telling me they’re looking for jobs and other agencies. They came to Social Security, because we could interview in public and they came from call centers where it was like a land office business. Just ratchet ’em up.
Tom Temin: Yes, like selling gold futures on the phone.
Ralph de Juliis: Yes.
Tom Temin: Ralph de Juliis is president of AFGE Council 220. Again, representing employees of the Social Security Administration who work in field offices and who deal with the public. Thanks so much for joining me.
Ralph de Juliis: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.