Amid growing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the Social Security Administration’s ongoing saga over telework has reached some finality this week.
“Given the evolving facts available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments, I’ve made the decision to further expand telework across the country,” Andrew Saul, the SSA commissioner, said Saturday night in an email to employees, which Federal News Network obtained.
SSA’s Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) will shift to full-time telework this week, he said.
Some employees in SSA’s payment service centers began full-time telework last Thursday or Friday. Others in the agency’s tele-service centers already have or will begin telework Monday, said Rich Couture, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 215.
AFGE Council 215 represents hearings and appeals employees at SSA.
Employees at SSA headquarters and other regional operations offices are also teleworking, Couture said.
SSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
SSA closed its field offices to the public last Tuesday. The agency last week had said employees were teleworking “in general and to the extent possible,” but some employees disputed those claims to Federal News Network.
The decision to close SSA field offices came before the Office of Management and Budget instructed agencies to realign resources and shutter non-essential in-person services to focus more intently on the government’s coronavirus response.
“The only exception to this nationwide telework requirement will be for those employees who have been explicitly instructed by their supervisors that their physical presence is required due to the nature of their responsibilities,” Saul wrote. “Only these employees are permitted to enter our facilities. If management determines that we do not have portable work or necessary equipment for you to telework, you will be placed on weather and safety leave until we are able to acquire additional equipment.”
Couture said SSA didn’t yet have enough “soft phones,” the special systems that tele-service center employees need to connect into the agency’s phone network and remotely handle their work.
The agency will also roll out some new technology in the coming week, which will allow OHO employees to remotely assist and cover hearings done over the phone, Couture said.
Union leaders received news of SSA’s plans to expand telework late last week.
“As SSA and federal employees, we are fortunate to be able to continue working and serving the American people during this difficult time,” Saul said in the email. “Please take care of yourself and your families, look out for your neighbors and let your supervisor know if you need anything. If you have additional questions or concerns, please contact your immediate supervisor for assistance.”
The agency is planning to first ask SSA supervisors to come into the office to handle some tasks that can’t be handled remotely, Couture said.
He said the agency seemed to be moving in the right direction, but he worried about employees being called back into the office to perform certain tasks.
“I don’t want employees to be called back into the office involuntarily,” Couture said. “I think there’s a way to have them take care of these remote workloads.”
Unions and SSA employees themselves have been highly critical of the agency’s approach to telework over the last week, especially as state governors have closed schools and non-essential businesses amid a growing coronavirus pandemic.
Some SSA employees continued to commute to the office last week, as the agency announced it would revert back to previous, “pre-March” telework schedules in response to coronavirus concerns. The original guidance didn’t apply to field components in the agency’s Office of Operations or Office of Hearings Operations, even though those employees have the most the contact with members of the public.
In early March, the agency had implemented a series of changes to its telework program across the agency. The policy changes varied widely depending on the component, position and, in some cases, the bargaining unit.
Some agencies across government have been slow to expand telework during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dozens of members of Congress have called on the Office of Personnel Management, OMB and the president himself to mandate telework for all eligible employees across the federal workforce.
A bipartisan group of senators over the weekend has introduced legislation that would require such an order from the White House.
Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced the Emergency Telework Act, which would give agencies a clear directive to allow eligible employees to telework full time, unless there’s a compelling reason that suggests otherwise.
“This is common-sense legislation that is needed to ensure federal employees also have the ability to telework as the federal government is encouraging Americans to stay at home,” Lankford said in a statement. “If federal employees have the ability to serve Americans from home during this time it is right to allow them to do so.”