Unclear how many SSA employees are gradually returning to their offices, union says

The American Federation of Government Employees says it's still in dark about the Social Security Administration's reopening plans. Employees have been slowly a...

At least one of the unions representing employees at the Social Security Administration said it’s still in the dark about the agency’s plans to reopen its offices to the public and the workforce.

The American Federation of Government Employees filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority on Monday, which charges SSA with failing to bargain over the agency’s reopening plans and for withholding information from the union.

In late June, AFGE heard from some of its members, who said their supervisors had asked them to return to their field and local offices.

Though the agency’s field and local offices are still closed, members of the public can call and schedule an appointment to handle “dire need” situations.

And as Federal News Network previously reported, SSA managers had called small numbers of employees back to the field and local offices to help with those “dire need” situations.

Members of the public who are homeless or don’t have safe mailing addresses are supposed to be able to enter an SSA local office to receive their Social Security checks in person. Legal permanent U.S. residents who still need a Social Security card are also supposed to be able to schedule an appointment with their local offices. But a few people who have described themselves as in this situation told Federal News Network they’ve struggled to schedule an appointment with the agency.

Employees have been slowly and gradually coming back into SSA field offices since April, Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE Council 220. The council represents employees who work at SSA field and local offices.

SSA told the union the agency had handled anywhere from 1,000-to-2,000 “dire need” cases a month.

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But the union doesn’t know how many of its members are returning to SSA offices — either on a regular basis or occasionally throughout the week — nor does it know what the conditions are like when employees arrive back to their local facilities.

“We don’t know if the areas have been cleaned and sanitized,” de Juliis said. “We have no idea if the people who are working there are allowed to work credit hours or overtime.”

AFGE later submitted a demand to bargain over SSA’s reopening plans on July 10. It also requested information on the number of employees who have returned to their field offices, the offices where employees are working and details on the work they’re performing. The union also sought details on the number of SSA employees who have returned to their offices and since contracted coronavirus.

In requesting this information, AFGE said it needed the data to determine whether it would file a grievance against SSA or complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the agency’s handling of any office reopenings.

But SSA also denied those information requests, arguing AFGE had failed to explain why the data was necessary for the union to adequately represent its members.

“Your request fails to meet particularized need,” Jim Julian, SSA’s associate administrator for labor management and employee relations, wrote in an Aug. 7 response to AFGE. “The union did not articulate with any specificity how the information is necessary or how it will help you in fulfilling your representational responsibilities under the [labor-management relations] statute. According to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the union must come forward with an explanation offering more than mere conclusions. The union cannot use an information request as a general audit approach.”

SSA did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.

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The agency has also denied the union’s demands to bargain, AFGE said, though SSA has hosted conversations with the unions. AFGE, however, contends the information it requested would have helped resolve disagreements and informed reopening conversations with SSA.

“These calls can’t be called consultation calls until the agency provides the information necessary for a full and proper discussion, understanding and negotiation of subjects being covered on the calls,” Bill Price, a president for AFGE Council 220, said in an email to SSA officials about the union’s information request.

To the union’s knowledge, the vast majority of SSA employees are continuing to telework. The agency has not called employees back to their offices en masse, nor has it provided a date for when all or some of the workforce might return.

But the gradual reentry of SSA employees has concerned AFGE. The union worries the slow recall of employees is by design, even though the relative silence on reopening means their members can continue teleworking.

Many SSA employees lost privileges altogether last fall or experienced telework cuts earlier this spring before the pandemic began in earnest.

“They have told us absolutely nothing official,” de Juliis said. “What we’re worried about is that the agency is going to bring people in a trickle at a time …  and eventually we’ll find out everyone is back everywhere.”

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