The Social Security Administration is giving employees two more weeks to adjust to the end of its telework program.
The agency’s telework pilot will end Nov. 22, rather than the originally announced date of Nov. 8, “to allow managers and staff additional time to transition,” Mark Hinkle, an SSA spokesman, said Friday in an email to Federal News Network.
The change applies to about 44,000 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. Support staff for the deputy commissioner for operations will also be impacted.
The majority of these employees, about 33,000 of them, didn’t telework under the SSA pilot and won’t be impacted by the change, Hinkle said. Approximately 11,000 SSA operations employees did use the program, the agency said.
“We know how hard our employees work and we are taking a number of steps to maximize our resources and address our challenges, including redirecting hiring to the front lines and recalling our employees to their offices,” Hinkle said.
Ending the SSA’s telework pilot, which first launched in 2013, is one step the agency is taking to improve customer service, he added.
In describing its decision to cancel the telework program to employees, Grace Kim, the agency’s deputy commissioner for operations, said ending the pilot would allow SSA to focus more intently on its customer service challenges.
“People wait far too long to reach us on our 800-number, for face-to-face service, for an answer on their disability claim and for our processing centers to handle important actions like paying favorable decisions and correcting records,” Hinkle said. “For example, we do not want a member of the public to take time to visit one of our offices expecting to meet with us in person, only to be handed a telephone to connect to a teleworking employee. Our service to the public must be more responsive to their specific needs.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many of the field operations workers who are impacted by the telework change, disputed the program had negatively impacted their ability to address customer service challenges.
The telework “pilot,” which had been in place for nearly seven years, had become part of employees’ lives, AFGE said.
Union leadership said the program helped employees more easily balance work with their personal lives. They feared SSA’s decision to end telework for some employees in two weeks was too little time for them to make new child or elder care arrangements, for example.
“Whether they take away telework a week from today or two weeks from today, the result will be the same: lower productivity for employees and worse outcomes for Social Security recipients,” Ralph DeJuliis, president of AFGE Council 220, said Friday in a statement.
SSA’s decision to end the telework program came one day after the expiration of the agency’s 2012 collective bargaining agreement with AFGE.
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.
AFGE acknowledged telework changes were possible once it had signed a new contract with SSA, but union leadership said it was surprised by the agency’s announcement.
SSA is the latest agency to make changes to its telework policy in recent years.
Both the Agriculture and Education last year limited telework to one day a week for their employees. At least one office within the Department of Health and Human Services has also implemented a similar one-day-a-week limit on its employees.
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.