After more than 18 months working from home, the Social Security Administration will begin reopening its offices to employees and members of the public later this year, the agency announced Friday.
The agency, once resistant to telework in the months before the pandemic, will embrace it moving forward, at least initially. SSA’s new reentry plan, which it began distributing to employees and union leaders late last week, includes new telework schedules for much of the workforce.
Senior SSA leadership will begin returning to the office starting Dec. 1, the agency said. Employees will begin returning to their offices starting Jan. 3.
The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well.
Employees will have at least 30 days advanced notice before their supervisors ask them to return to the office, according to the SSA reentry plan.
SSA field offices have been mostly closed to the public, or open by appointment for “dire-needs” only, since March 2020. The closures have frustrated members of the public and Congress, who say those from vulnerable communities are struggling to access Social Security benefits.
“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said Monday in an email to Federal News Network. “We know that those options do not work for everyone. In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agency-wide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility.”
This is perhaps the first time SSA has pitched a reentry date for its employees during the pandemic, though it could change. Other agencies have previously set reentry dates for their workforces, but the delta variant and other factors have pushed them back.
Moving forward, SSA managers and executives can telework, the agency said. SSA component leaders have developed their own telework programs that are unique to individual operational needs.
In general, SSA employees who were eligible to telework during the pandemic will remain so moving forward, the agency said. Depending on their positions, employees can telework between two-and-five days a week, at least during an initial six-month “evaluation period.”
“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as, or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”
The agency will track metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability and environmental considerations, among other factors, over the course of the next six months.
The results of this evaluation period will inform longer-term workforce plans that the agency will implement in fiscal 2023, SSA said.
“The global pandemic has changed our operating environment, how and where we work, and highlighted those areas where we are not meeting our public’s needs,” Grace Kim, SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations, said Friday in an email to employees, which Federal News Network obtained. “Over the course of the past 19 months, we have learned that we can effectively accomplish some work while teleworking, but our public service responsibilities mean that we still need to do some work onsite.”
Employees working at SSA field offices will be eligible for up to two days of telework each week. Teleservice center employees are eligible for four days.
Employees working for the SSA actuary, general counsel, human resources, retirement and disability policy and legislative and congressional affairs can telework a full five days each week, according to the agency’s reentry plan.
Many SSA systems employees are eligible for five days of telework each week.
Administrative law judges and hearings support staff are eligible for three-to-four days of telework each week. SSA decision writers can work remotely for the full five days.
“Acting Commissioner [Kilolo] Kijakazi supports telework provided there is accountability and we can serve the public remotely as efficiently as we do in the office,” Tiggemann said.” Agency leadership, including our deputy commissioners, have shared their telework decisions with their employees, and this is the starting point.”
Employees score more telework days, at least for now
In many cases, SSA employees will have access to more telework days than they did before the pandemic — and before former Commissioner Andrew Saul implemented divisive cuts and cancelations to the program for portions of the agency’s workforce in late 2019 and early 2020.
“I was pleased to see that SSA had listened to the concerns that AFGE had raised with respect to the ability of employees, the overwhelming majority, to not just maintain productivity but also exceed prior levels of producibility while teleworking during the pandemic,” Rich Couture, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 215, said in an interview.
Council 215 represents hearings and appeals employees at SSA. Couture called the planned telework changes a “very positive first step,” and a “leap in the right direction” but said he still has several questions about the agency’s reentry plan that haven’t been answered.
It’s unclear, for example, how SSA arrived at the Jan. 3 date for employees to begin returning to the office, Couture said.
“We have questions as to why the work-from-home-by-quarantine policy will be eliminated… when the very circumstances that led to its creation are still in existence,” he said.
That policy, Couture said, gives important flexibilities to SSA employees who are high-risk for COVID-19 complications or live with someone who may be immunocompromised. It also helps employees with young children, who may still have to deal with school closures and quarantine orders.
SSA’s reentry plan describes how it will continue to coordinate safety protocols with the workforce. Mask, vaccine and cleaning procedures will remain in place, and SSA may continue to set occupancy limits in offices depending on local guidelines, according to the plan.
All agencies were supposed to revise and submit reentry plans to the White House over the summer, but SSA got more time. Other organizations are eyeing similar return-to-work dates for their employees in early January.
Couture said he didn’t know how SSA would handle those circumstances after Jan. 3 or whether the agency would implement additional “phases” other than the initial December reentry date for senior leadership or the following one a month later for the rest of the workforce.
Ralph de Juliis, president of the AFGE council representing SSA field office and teleservice center employees, also said he’s proud to see the agency continue telework programs. But he too has concerns about the agency returning to pre-pandemic operations.
“We cannot and should not return to the usual crowded lobbies and hours-long wait times that was so common at SSA field offices before the onset of the pandemic,” he said Friday in a statement. “In order to mitigate community transmission and improve the quality of service the public receives at SSA field offices, we are demanding that SSA work with employees to create an appointment-only schedule to prevent a decline in our quality of services. As a part of the AFGE bargaining unit, Council 220 will hold the agency accountable to ensure that our employees can continue to work in a safe and secure environment, at home or in the workplace.”
Couture said he and his AFGE council didn’t bargain with SSA over the particulars of the new reentry plan, but it did have broader discussions with the agency about telework and the future of work in recent months. He submitted a demand to begin consultations and negotiations with SSA over the latest reentry plan.
“The agency is engaging with our employee unions around reentry and safety protocols,” Tiggemann, the SSA spokeswoman, said. “The outcome of these negotiations will drive important reentry details, including when we will transition from our remote pandemic operations.”