First Look

SSA will continue telework, appointment-only services for ‘extended time’

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With a customer base especially vulnerable to the threats of coronavirus, the Social Security Administration will continue to rely on telework for its employees and appointment-only services for the public, according to agency plans.

SSA’s “reposturing plan,” which Federal News Network obtained, describes how the agency will balance the safety of its workforce and members of the public —many of whom meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased risk criteria — while “delivering good public service, with empathy,” according to a statement on the first page.

“Telework, while not the preferred service channel for all customers or workloads, has allowed us to maintain most services while reducing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the public and our staff,” the plan, dated Aug. 20, reads. “We may need to maximize telework for an extended time depending on state and local decisions and environments. Thus, part of our COVID-19 response will be to improve our telework posture, including exploring technology and/or business process solutions while taking steps to further ensure management oversight and employee accountability.”

SSA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Aug. 20 resposturing plan is the first written document on SSA’s reopening approach that union officials have seen, said Ralph de Juliis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220. The council represents employees at SSA’s field and local offices.

SSA has been relatively quiet about its reopening plans for the past several months, even as other federal agencies have made reentry guides available to their employees and recalled portions of their workforces back to the office.

Though it’s light on details and provides no dates for when the agency will enter specific phases, the SSA plan suggests appointment-only services will continue for some time. And while it’s unclear how long the vast majority of SSA employees will continue remote work, the new reposturing plan is a departure from the agency’s approach to telework before the pandemic — when employees experienced cuts to the program or lost privileges altogether earlier this year and last fall.

Now, “maximum telework” will continue through phase one, and it will be “encouraged” through phase two.

During phase one, the agency may require employees to return to SSA facilities “if it necessary to perform essential duties,” according to the plan. SSA will maintain no more than 25% of office staffing, the agency said.

Under phase two, SSA will maintain no more than 50% of office staffing to perform essential services. “SSA may expand in-office workloads based on local conditions and needs, as necessary, while continuing telework for portable work,” the agency said.

The public will be required to make an appointment for in-office services through phases one and two, according to the SSA reposturing plan.

SSA will still require appointments for most workloads during phase three, the agency said.

“Given current information about COVID-19, while phase 3 implementation of the White House gating criteria permits a return to pre-COVID-19 operations, many members of the public we serve meet the definition of the CDC’s vulnerable populations at higher risk for serious complications,” SSA said in its reposturing plan. “This fact, combined with our ability to maintain much of our public service over the telephone or online, necessitates continuing to operate with an appointment only in-office service model.”

The plan for telework during SSA’s phase three is less clear. The agency will resume “unrestricted staffing of worksites and continue telework where work is not negatively affected,” the plan reads.

And as it did during the previous two phases, SSA will consider vulnerable populations, available transit options and childcare challenges while developing alternative service processes for workloads that employees must handle in person.

SSA managers have been asking some employees to return to local and field offices to help with “dire need situations” since April, AFGE told Federal News Network earlier this week. Employees are processing the mail and working with members on the public that need assistance in person.

Unions, however, have said they’re not sure how many of their members have returned to their offices, either on regular or ad-hoc basis, or what cleaning and social distancing procedures are like when employees arrive.

AFGE filed an unfair labor practice with the Federal Labor Relations Authority earlier this week, accusing SSA of failing to bargain and withholding information from the union about its reopening plans.

As Federal News Network previously reported, union officials have also expressed skepticism with the slow, gradual return of SSA employees to agency facilities. They fear a quiet recall of the SSA workforce means the unions will have little input in the agency’s reopening.

AFGE Council 220 on Friday filed another demand to bargain over the SSA’s new reposturing plan. In its demand the union argued returning SSA employees would face different conditions of employment that should necessitate collective bargaining.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents workers at SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations, said it was pleased SSA’s plan appears to allow those portable workloads to continue teleworking.

“It is important to point out that this is not a ‘reopening’ plan because SSA never ‘closed,'” Christie Saunders, president of NTEU’s Chapter 224, said in a statement. “NTEU represented employees in OHO were already adept at working from home and have helped SSA exceed agency productivity goals even though physical office buildings are closed. However, we continue to pursue more flexible scheduling in order to help employees juggle dependent care while they are working from home. NTEU is also considering our options on making sure the implementation of the reposturing plan provides employees the best possible work environment while also protecting employee rights.”

Saunders said the union wants to see SSA commit to providing employees with at least two weeks’ notice before being asked to return to the office. Reopened facilities should set strict cleaning and safety protocols, the union said.

SSA’s reposturing plan does broadly describe an intent to develop new cleaning procedures and social distancing guidelines for more than 1,500 agency facilities.

The agency will also utilize Skype, Microsoft Teams and other teleconferencing platforms for virtual meetings, and common spaces and employees break rooms will be closed throughout much of SSA’s “reposturing,” according to the plan.

Again, timing of these phases is unclear. Telework plans will likely evolve geographically as local conditions permit, SSA said.

Like other agencies’ plans, SSA drew on the White House’s broad gating criteria. “When an area meets the criteria in each of the three gates, phased implementation will begin,” the plan states.

But the plan doesn’t specify how SSA will define a specific geographic area or whether a local facility will follow a city, county or state’s reopening trajectory.

“As the circumstances informing movement from one phase to another change, agency leadership will consider reverting to a previous phase, should gating criteria indicators erode and state and local decisions change in the communities where our offices are located,” SSA said.

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