First Look

SSA announces telework changes amid growing coronavirus concerns

The Social Security Administration on Friday afternoon announced a series of changes to its telework policy, amid growing employee concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the current strain of the coronavirus.

“The agency is reverting to previous (pre-March) telework schedules for all components except field components of the Office of Operations and Office of Hearings Operations,” SSA said Friday afternoon in an email to all employees, which Federal News Network obtained. “The Office of Operations and Office of Hearings Operations will designate field telework levels based on geographic conditions and public service needs.  With this rapidly evolving situation, we continue to assess where additional telework may be appropriate.”

The telework changes are effective immediately, the SSA email read.

In addition, SSA said it will make a “work at home quarantine” option available to employees who are either quarantined or whose children are home due to a coronavirus-related school closure.

Advertisement

Employees in one of these situations should contact their supervisors for more information, the SSA email said.

As of Friday afternoon, several states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, have closed schools for several weeks.

In addition, SSA employees who are at higher risk for coronavirus — those who are older, pregnant or have underlying health conditions — can ask to work from home under the agency’s new “work at home quarantine” option.

“In certain locations, office closures may be necessary,” the SSA email reads. “You will be notified if you are in one of these affected offices. The agency may order employees to work from home with or without a telework agreement when offices are closed. In this case, employee’s homes temporarily become their duty stations under evacuation rules.”

The agency has also asked its employees who are returning home from one of the State Department-designated “high risk” countries to stay home and speak with their supervisors.

“We are working to balance between protecting our employees, the public we serve, and continuing vital service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Telework can help us with that during this unusual circumstance.  We are implementing additional steps to protect our employees who may be most vulnerable to COVID-19, to enhance social distancing for all offices including by expanding telework for many employees and to address steps that must be taken in certain office locations where COVID-19 is most prevalent.”

SSA’s new guidance comes as several employees and federal unions have said agencies were “far too stingy” in expanding telework and loosening existing requirements.

The agency in January announced a wide variety of changes to its telework policy for SSA employees. The policy changes varied 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.

The telework schedules went into effect March 3.

Several SSA employees had expressed their own concerns to Federal News Network, especially those who work in local and regional field offices and have direct contact with the public.

Still, the agency’s latest guidance leaves some uncertainty, as SSA operations and hearings employees who work in the field are still without telework agreements.

“SSA has done the barest minimum possible in order to claim that they are taking this situation seriously, which they clearly are not,” Rich Couture, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 215, which represents some SSA employees. “No provisions have been made to protect employees in the district and hearing offices who come in contact with visitors every day, visitors who are highly vulnerable to this virus due to their age or physical conditions.”