New SSA telework policies prompt criticism from employees, lawmakers

Employees at the Social Security Administration began work this week under their agency’s new telework policies, which some say are overbearing and burdensome.

SSA telework changes, which the agency announced broadly back in January, vary widely depending on the component, position and, in some cases, the bargaining unit. Some employees are teleworking a day or two less than they were previously. For others at the agency’s field offices and tele-service centers, telework remains eliminated.

But the recent SSA telework changes have sparked criticism among congressional members and one of the agency’s unions — amid growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

A message from SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul to the agency’s workforce encourages employees to wash their hands and cover sneezes and coughs as ways to prevent illnesses like the coronavirus and the flu. It does not mention telework.

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“I truly admire and appreciate your dedication to your job and understand that some of us choose to work even when we aren’t feeling our best; however, it is better to stay home, give yourself the opportunity to recover and prevent the possibility of infecting your coworkers and the public,” the March 5 message, which Federal News Network obtained, reads.

SSA employees, however, have told Federal News Network they have concerns over the timing of recent telework changes.  Both the Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged agencies to ensure their employees are “telework-ready” amid a potential coronavirus outbreak in their areas.

But even beyond mounting coronavirus concerns, the new telework policies themselves have prompted criticism from employees and one of their unions.

For the SSA operations workforce, telework changes differ widely.

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Certain regional office and central operations staff can work remotely one day a week per pay period, a change from the decision SSA made last October to eliminate telework for most employees in this component.

Employees within SSA’s tele-service and field offices, however, still can’t telework.

SSA legal assistants will be allowed to telework one day per two-week pay period, according to Rich Couture, chief spokesman for the union’s SSA bargaining units.

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.

Employees must contact their supervisors at the start and end of each telework day, according to new telework guidance for operations employees, which the workforce received last week and Federal News Network obtained.

In addition, employees must provide a written list of tasks they expect to accomplish that day to their supervisors, which is a new requirement. Employees must send a similar log detailing their completed work at the end of the day, according to the guidance.

“That just seems to be micro-management for its own sake,” Couture said. “We’re professionals. We know the work that we’re supposed to perform. Teleworkers have been self-starters. If they’re given an express instruction to work on a particular case, they do it. Otherwise, they manage their workloads according to supervisory expectations.”

Prior to SSA’s recent telework changes, most employee work was already tracked through he agency’s workload management systems, he added.

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For the SSA’s systems component, employees are supposed to be in the office four days a week. Systems employees can work remotely one day a week, unless they have an alternate work schedule. Employees who, for example, work four 10-hour days are no longer eligible for telework, according to SSA systems guidance, which Federal News Network reviewed.

Guidance for SSA systems employees details a long list of expectations, protocols and performance metrics for various positions.

“I expect that our work in ‘core IT’ and ‘IT mod[ernization] will require us to operate differently in order to solve our most urgent customer service needs in a timely manner,” Rajive Mathur, SSA’s chief information officer, said in a Feb. 18 email to systems employees. “We need to do that with a greater level of urgency, with real-time and face-to-face interactions. Increased direct interactions amongst team members will encourage more creative outcomes. Modern methodologies like agile require direct interaction and collaborative technologies (such as Slack or MS Teams) and can allow higher performance teams.”

The Feb. 18 email, which Federal News Network obtained, noted recently developed telework accountability plans. Those plans will measure the impact of telework on employee productivity, Mathur said.

“Please remember that telework is a privilege,” Mathur said. “I know that many of you have come to count on telework for the conveniences and flexibility it allows, but our primary focus and purpose of our work is our commitment to public service and delivering modern technology with the accountability that comes with it.

Mathur said he may consider changes to his component’s telework policy once he had additional data.

Coronavirus concerns pile onto SSA telework criticism

Some SSA employees have said they’ve received little other written guidance about recent telework changes.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents tens of thousands of SSA employees, said it still doesn’t have a detailed list of all telework changes. The union filed a grievance in January with SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations over the agency’s recent telework decisions.

AFGE hasn’t yet heard from the agency, Couture said.

The union on March 2 filed a written supplement to its original grievance, asking for more details about SSA’s plans to expand telework in light of growing concerns of the coronavirus.

“Let’s have some foresight and be proactive in dealing with this problem, rather than dealing with yet another crisis of management’s own creation, frankly,” Couture said.

When asked whether SSA would consider changes to its new telework policies in response to growing coronavirus concerns, Mark Hinkle, an agency spokesman, said: “We are working closely with the CDC and remain prepared to deal with contingencies under our continuity of government plans.”

At least two members of Congress have expressed similar concerns over SSA telework policies. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, urged Saul to reverse recent decisions to eliminate or reduce telework options.

“If SSA had a robust telework program, SSA would be well positioned to continue many public-serving operations while employees worked from home,” members wrote. “Abandoning SSA’s telework infrastructure is not only counterproductive to improving employee morale and making SSA an attractive place to work, but it also removes an important tool that SSA could deploy in a public health crisis like the COVID-19 virus outbreak.”

And in light of recent telework cuts at agencies like SSA and others, three House members introduced new legislation to expand it.

The Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act would prohibit agencies from making across-the-board cuts to the program. The bill, which Reps. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Gerry Connolly and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) introduced, would also set clear performance metrics for agencies on telework.