SSA announces more agencywide telework changes

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This story was updated Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 at 9:45 a.m. to reflect an additional statement from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). 

The Social Security Administration on Monday announced a series of changes to its telework policies, though the details and arrangements vary widely across the agency.

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“The agency is making changes to telework because public service comes first,” Mark Hinkle, an SSA spokesman, said in an email. “Each deputy commissioner was responsible for determining what employee positions are eligible to telework and the number of permitted telework days.”

SSA notified employees and unions about the changes Monday afternoon. New telework schedules will go into effect March 2, Hinkle said.

The range and scope of the telework changes depend on the organization within SSA — and, it appears, whether or not an employee is part of a specific bargaining unit.

SSA wouldn’t specify the details of these new telework arrangements, nor would it describe which employees and components would be impacted.

As of Monday afternoon, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents a wide range of SSA employees across the country, was still learning exactly what these changes would mean for its bargaining unit members.

Legal assistants within the AFGE bargaining unit will be allowed to telework one day per two-week pay period, a change that Rich Couture, chief spokesman for the union’s SSA bargaining units, said was “devastating” for the employees who currently spend up to three days a week working remotely.

But decision writers within the AFGE bargaining unit would see no change to their telework arrangements, he said.

Meanwhile, most employees within SSA’s Office of Quality Review will see an across-the-board, one-day a week change to their telework arrangements, Couture said. Quality review employees who previously worked remotely for three days a week will telework for two days a week, he said. Employees within the unit who worked remotely for two days a week will soon telework one day a week.

AFGE said it learned early Monday of SSA’s intent to announce telework changes. SSA management briefed groups of employees throughout the day.

“Supervisors will meet with employees affected by the changes, and the union will be invited to attend,” Jim Julian, associate commissioner for SSA’s Office of Labor Management and Employee Relations, wrote in a Jan. 27 memo to AFGE. “Supervisors will provide additional information at that time. Following the meetings, employees will receive written notice of their eligibility for telework and/or number of scheduled days in their component.”

Eligible employees who want to continue teleworking must reapply and submit a written agreement by Feb. 7.

The memo, which Federal News Network obtained, serves as a “courtesy informational notice” to the union and doesn’t constitute as a formal notice to bargain, SSA said.

Upcoming telework changes are less clear for the SSA operations employees, whose six-year-old telework program was canceled last fall.

According to AFGE Council 220, which represents employees who work within SSA field offices and teleservice centers, the agency is only reinstating telework for workers within headquarters and regional operations offices.

“Despite months of outcry and pressure from Congress, the SSA under Commissioner Andrew Saul continues to refuse telework to employees in teleservice centers, payment service centers, and field offices, who feel these cuts acutely,” Ralph de Juliis, AFGE Council 220 president, said in a statement. “By taking away telework, SSA is sending a clear message that employees who manage childcare or elder care, face long commutes or face lower productivity because of this change are of no importance. We call on Congress to demand SSA reinstate telework for all employees, not just those at headquarters.”

SSA’s new telework changes come less than two months after Congress urged the agency in a 2020 spending bill to develop a new program for its operations workforce. The agency had 60 days to write a new policy.

SSA had announced plans last October to cancel the telework program for some 11,000-to-12,000 employees within the agency’s operations unit. The announcement came one day after the start of a new contract with AFGE, which gave SSA deputy commissioners the discretion to make telework changes on their own without bargaining over the topic.

SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul at the time had cited the agency’s customer service challenges as the main reason for his decision, but employees said they weren’t given enough time to make arrangements to adjust to life without telework. SSA eventually pushed back the end date for the operations telework program by three weeks.

“The issue is not managerial flexibility, it’s a matter of actually managing an office,” Couture said. “There are ways of doing that, of managing an office and maximizing telework opportunities. To me there is no actual business need. There is no business reason for this. This is all about an administration that does not believe in telework and is trying any way possible to get rid of it.”

A spokeswoman for Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the senator had heard SSA would comply with the instructions from Congress to develop a new telework program, but initial details were “sparse” and “discouraging.”

“He will continue to monitor the situation and stay in touch with employees and their union representatives to see if SSA leadership truly is following congressional intent and supporting a program that the SSA’s own inspector general determined increases productivity among workers,” the spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, the National Treasury Employees Union said its attorneys, decision writers and others at SSA will not experience any telework changes.

“The vast majority of the 2,100 employees in the SSA Office of Hearing Operations that we represent will continue to have access to their regular telework schedule of three to four days per week, as provided under a recently completed six-year collective bargaining agreement,” Tony Reardon, NTEU national president, said in a statement to Federal News Network.

NTEU finalized a new bargaining agreement with SSA late last year. The agreement allowed NTEU bargaining unit members to keep their existing program after the Federal Service Impasses Panel settled a dispute between the two parties on this topic.

“We are not aware of any attempt by SSA to violate the terms of its contract with NTEU, but we remain vigilant for any new workplace policies that would undermine the telework program,” Reardon added. “Frontline OHO employees have demonstrated that teleworking has increased productivity, helped reduce case backlogs and allowed OHO to exceed all of its performance goals in fiscal year 2019.”

Both Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) were among the members of Congress who had urged SSA last fall to reconsider its plans to cancel telework for the agency’s operations workforce.

Van Hollen said he was concerned Monday’s announcement would only “generate more confusion.”

“I urge SSA to immediately issue a clear policy that supports telework and helps their employees better serve the American people,” he said in a statement to Federal News Network. “We will continue to monitor this issue closely.”

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