SSA ends telework program for operations employees, citing need to focus on customer service

The Social Security Administration is ending its telework policy for several thousand employees in the agency’s field offices, operational units and other customer-facing organizations.

The change applies to all employees at SSA’s tele-service centers, field offices, workload support units, program service centers, area director’s offices, regional offices and the Office of Central Operations, Grace Kim, the agency’s deputy commissioner for operations, said Monday in an email, which Federal News Network obtained.

Support staff for the deputy commissioner for operations will also be impacted.

SSA confirmed the end of its telework policy for operations employees.

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“In order to improve service delivery and to focus all of operations’ resources on providing service to our customers, the deputy commissioner for operations decided to end the telework pilot in operations on Nov. 8,” an SSA spokesman said in an email to Federal News Network.

In her message to employees, Kim said the Nov. 8 end date would allow time for “an orderly wind down” of the telework program. Managers will meet with impacted employees to “discuss next steps,” she added.

The decision to end the telework program comes one day after the expiration of SSA’s 2012 collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees.

AFGE and SSA had reached an agreement in late September on a new, six-year contract after more than a year of contentious negotiations, an impasse and involvement from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Federal Service Impasses Panel.

Under the new bargaining agreement, which became effective Oct. 27, each SSA deputy commissioner can determine whether employees who currently telework should be allowed to continue.

Sherry Jackson, a vice president with AFGE Council 220, acknowledged telework changes were possible once the union signed the new contract.

But she didn’t think SSA would end the telework program one day after the contract became effective.

Now, according to AFGE’s estimates, nearly 12,000 SSA employees have less than two weeks to make new work, commuting and family arrangements to comply with the agency’s Nov. 8 end date for the telework program.

Jackson said telework often allowed eligible employees to shorten their commute and more easily care for elderly family members or their children. Now, employees have less than two weeks to “change their lifestyles,” she said.

“This was a part of people’s lives that has become interwoven with their work lives,” Jackson said. “Some people had elder care, and some people had child care. To expect someone to find elder or child care in less than a week is not reasonable. This will probably cause an influx of people having to use their vacation time or what have you to try to make arrangements to try to get around a stumbling block that wasn’t there a week ago.”

About 25% of SSA operations employees participated in its telework “pilot,” which the agency launched back in 2013. Under the current program, eligible employees could work up to one day a week remotely.

“Our contract also says that there will be fair and reasonable notice and the ability to negotiate and bargain a major change like this,” Jackson said. “This was not something that was a two-week pilot. This was [nearly] seven years. [We] didn’t get advance notice.”

SSA did cite some concerns with its telework program in the bargaining proposals it submitted to the Federal Service Impasses Panel for review.

A program manager for SSA’s IT operations said there were issues at 12 field offices after the agency rolled out telework in 2012, according to the FSIP decision.

“At least 18 hearing offices had to reduce the number of days of telework per week because in-person duties were not being accomplished,” the impasses panel said in its decision. “A chief administrative law judge stated that his office saw an increase in the number of in-person employees available to address such duties once his office decreased the number of telework days.”

Three field office managers also noted several offices with increased wait times due to a lack of in-person availability.

The impasses panel concluded SSA “needs maximum flexibility to ensure its functions can be performed in a timely and efficient manner.”

“We must have the ability and flexibility to address our shifting workloads and the daily, and oftentimes emergent, needs of our front-line components,” Kim wrote in the email to employees. “To improve our service delivery, we need to utilize every valuable resource we have in operations and the talents that each of you bring to this agency.”

But for Jackson, telework isn’t the root cause behind SSA’s challenges in meeting customer service demands. She said most appointments with the public are conducted over the phone, which SSA employees can conduct remotely.

“The problem is that the agency is not staffed properly, and that’s something that comes from the top,” Jackson said.

In the meantime, AFGE said the change in telework policy will have a negative impact on employee morale, productivity and their well-being. And it’s concerned the agency may not have the office to space to accommodate all SSA employees at all times.

“When offices are remodeled… they were planned according to the staff number and according to the people who were in the telework program,” Jackson said. “If you have 20 people in an office and 10 of them telework, they’ve only built out offices or workspaces for 10 people. If you cancel this in a week, you have to put all these people into a space that’s really built for 15 or 10. Where are you going to put them?”

SSA has previously cited customer service challenges as the reason behind other significant policy changes within the past year. It announced a hiring freeze in August as a way to take stock of existing positions and marshal all resources into the SSA customer service mission. SSA headquarters and regional offices were impacted by the freeze; teleservice and other processing service centers were not.

“The commissioner has already directed additional staff and other resources to operations to help us improve our service to the public, particularly our field office wait times, 800-number service and reduction of backlogs in our [program service centers],” Kim said. “As operations employees and public servants, we share the commissioner’s commitment and must ensure we do everything we can to improve service to our customers. That includes continually evaluating the way in which we accomplish our work.”

SSA, meanwhile, isn’t the first agency to make changes to its telework policy within the last year.

Both the departments of Agriculture and Education last year limited telework to one day a week for their employees.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) implemented a similar one-day limit on its employees earlier this year.

Like SSA, both Education and HHS altered their telework programs after heated negotiations with their federal employee unions.

The Interior Department also tweaked its telework policy this year. The department simply required all employees to come to their official work sites two full days out of every biweekly pay period. It also eliminated telework for Interior supervisors and managers.

In multiple pieces of guidance issued to agencies this year, the Office of Personnel Management has said it would continue to promote telework as a valuable workplace flexibility for employees. More than three-quarters of federal teleworkers who took OPM’s most recent work-life survey said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the program, citing less stress and more productivity.

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