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As several large departments make plans to reopen their offices to employees and the public during the pandemic, one agency has been relatively quiet.
The Social Security Administration, which made a series of contentious cuts to its telework program in the month leading up to the pandemic, has not called employees back to their offices en masse, nor has the agency indicated when it might do so.
Several agencies have published or distributed multi-phase reopening plans to their workforces in recent months, which describe, in varying levels of detail, how employees will gradually return to their offices and what to expect upon arrival.
Neither employees nor the unions that represent the SSA workforce have seen any kind of “reopening plan” from the agency, though they acknowledged it didn’t mean SSA doesn’t have one.
“I can’t say that there’s any type of reopening framework,” Rich Couture, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 215, which represents hearings and appeals employees at SSA.
Reopening plans may be in the works, he said, but Couture doubted the unions would be privy to the discussions or the final guidelines before employees. The press learned of SSA’s plans in January to make telework changes before the union did.
To date, there have been no significant discussions with SSA about reopening, Couture said.
Employees have received some short messages from SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul during the pandemic. A June 16 email, which Federal News Network obtained, said the agency was working to procure masks, sanitizer and other supplies while employees continued maximum telework.
AFGE Council 220, which represents employees at SSA’s field offices around the country, hasn’t seen agency reopening plans either, said President Ralph de Juliis.
SSA declined to comment on its specific reopening plans, and it didn’t offer any timelines or details on how telework might fit into the agency’s future.
“We are monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely and are evaluating guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management,” an SSA spokesman said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Many of our visitors are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Our goal is to continue to serve the American public while doing what we can to reduce the risk to our employees and visitors.”
For the vast majority of SSA employees, they’ve been teleworking from home since March. With field and local offices closed, those with direct customer-facing roles are providing online or phone services to the public.
“We are not able to accept in-person visitors to our local offices at this time, except by appointment for dire need situations,” the SSA spokesman said.
“All Social Security facilities remain restricted to very limited, authorized personnel performing non-portable, mission critical work,” the agency added.
SSA managers are working at the local field offices a few days a week to handle those dire need situations, said de Juliis of AFGE Council 220. Some SSA managers have asked a small number of employees to return to field offices to help with mail and other paperwork, but he said those scenarios aren’t widespread to date.
“We were told that across the country managers are seeing a few thousand people a month,” he said.
On one hand, silence from SSA means agency employees are continuing to work remotely during the pandemic, a point of optimism for employees who experienced telework cuts or lost privileges altogether last fall.
But on the other, silence means there’s likely quite a bit employees and their unions don’t know about SSA’s eventual reopening plans.
“The union overall is concerned about the boiling of the frog … where decisions will be made on a gradual basis for recalling employees back to their duty stations, and it’s almost too late to do anything about it,” Couture said.
Reopening SSA local offices to the public is a challenge
Both the agency and the unions seem to agree: reopening some SSA offices to high-risk members of the public is a daunting task.
Some SSA offices have high-walls or sliding barriers between employees and members of the public, but others don’t. The agency had told the union it would retrofit field office work spaces to six-by-six-foot cubicles with low walls, but de Juliis said it’s unclear if that plan is moving forward.
And in an effort to determine how many employees may be high risk for the virus, have high risk family members at home or long-term child care or dependent care responsibilities, managers have been asking employees about their own personal situations, de Juliis said.
“The agency is trying to get a handle on … if we call people back, how many people are going to be requesting to work at home by quarantine? That will affect how we can socially distance in the office,” he said. “If you’re in an urban office … we’re crowded like a bar on spring break. That’s really, really bad for social distancing and really good … for spreading the disease.”
The SSA field office union is encouraging employees to be honest with their managers about what possible accommodations they might need.
“It is positive that the agency has taken a step in doing it right, as opposed to what they’ve done in other agencies. We really want the employees to cooperate,” de Juliis said. “With work-at-home it’s a matter of trust, and we’re trying to build the agency’s trust by showing them all the work that people are doing. These aren’t our stats. These are the agency’s stats. You can manage people who you can’t see by how much work they do. It’s a different way for SSA to manage.”
Couture said he had a promising conversation with leadership at the SSA Appeals Council about workloads that had largely been suspended during the pandemic. The agency, for example, has found a way for employees to process mail electronically from home, he said.
The conversation gave him a “glimmer of hope” that SSA may take a similar approach with other workloads in the future.
SSA telework improved productivity, unions say
Though union leaders are pleased with SSA’s quick pivot to telework during the pandemic, they’re still concerned the agency has been largely silent about its overall reopening approach.
“The fact that we have not had any discussions regarding reopening issues, three months in, is certainly concerning,” Couture said. “It’s certainly concerning that the agency has an issue of dropping issues on us without having any meaningful discussions with us with little notice.”
De Juliis shares his apprehensions.
“We are concerned about keeping our members safe, because if you’re sick, you’re not doing the public’s work,” he said. “At Social Security, we deal with the disabled. We deal with the elderly, people who are filing for retirement. We are dealing with the most vulnerable population. We are very concerned that they’re not sharing their plans with us.”
Both union leaders say employees should be able to continue teleworking for the foreseeable future
“There’s no need to bring people back. Our numbers agency-wide are the best they’ve been in a while,” Couture said. “All of our metrics have improved. There is no need to hurry.”
SSA employees handled 275,533 more calls to the national 800 number in May than they did during the same time last year. Average processing times for a hearing decision have improved from 491 days last May to 357 days this year, according to de Juliis, who compiled data from SSA’s management information system.
SSA employees have — for the most part — secured the equipment they need to work remotely, he added. Field employees can hit “print” on a document from their laptops at home and have it print at the office, de Juliis said. Managers are collecting printed receipts and mailing them to members of the public.
In some locations, SSA has secured additional monitors or ergonomic keyboards for employees who asked for them, de Juliis said.
“Considering they hated telework … they’ve done an incredible job of turning around 180 degrees,”he said.