Employees at the Social Security Administration are just a few small steps away from solidifying benefits in telework eligibility, training and career development, child and elder care — and much more.
After months of negotiations, SSA reached an agreement with one of its unions, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 42,000 SSA employees nationwide. The two parties began negotiations in April over six articles of their collective bargaining agreement.
Labor and agency leaders reached an agreement to update the articles, which will last for the next six years, AFGE said in a press release Wednesday. The updated provisions are a positive step in labor-management negotiations, said Jessica LaPointe, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents SSA field office and teleservice center employees.
“Time will tell truly how the employees feel about this new contract,” LaPointe said in an interview with Federal News Network. “But in terms of just the work we put in, we feel like we have, in the moment, succeeded.”
The agreement is not yet final. It still has to get through proofreading, union ratification and an agency head review process. But SSA Press Officer Mark Hinkle said he’s “optimistic” about the final agreement and hopes it will improve employee satisfaction at the agency.
“While it would be premature for us to comment on specific provisions in the tentative agreement, Social Security has been fully committed to good faith negotiations throughout the process,” Hinkle said in an email to Federal News Network.
Rich Couture, chief negotiator for AFGE Council 215, said he was “very pleased” with the outcome of the negotiations, after months of intense deliberations.
“This truly was a team effort, from the folks at the bargaining table to the support we received from AFGE National and members of the public who rallied with us in support of our mission and the benefits we deliver to tens of millions of Americans,” Couture said in a press statement.
SSA previously negotiated new contracts with its two other unions, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents attorneys and paralegals in SSA’s Office of Hearings Operations — as well as the Association of Administrative Law Judges, which represents the agency’s administrative law judges.
What’s in the new agreement?
The updated provisions cover a broad range of benefits for SSA employees, including solidifying some telework opportunities, in specific cases. The agreement allows for “temporary compassionate assignments,” which let employees relocate and work remotely for up to two months, in the case of a temporary personal situation, such as the death of a close family member.
“We have not had something like this readily available for employees, which is why employees feel like they don’t have that work-life balance in our agency,” LaPointe said. “This is something that will help in that area.”
There is also a new section in the contract that lets SSA employees go on “virtual details” to learn more about jobs in different agency components. Those details, which employees can complete remotely, can in turn help them build their resumes and potentially become eligible for promotions, LaPointe said. Limited opportunity for career advancement has been an ongoing concern for AFGE leadership.
The contract also extends a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from earlier this year regarding telework eligibility. The MOU lets probationary employees, trainees and employees with minor disciplinary actions against them still telework. That MOU will now last another six years.
“We’re really happy to have secured some movement there with telework,” LaPointe said.
But, she added, securing more telework for SSA bargaining unit employees remains an “uphill battle.” SSA field office employees can currently telework two days per week and teleservice center employees can telework four days per week. For LaPointe, the future of telework at SSA is top of mind.
“We have the commissioner telling the union that changes to telework are coming and that we need to brace ourselves and be realistic based on different congressional pressures and the OMB [memo] that came out,” she said. “It’s crucial to the psyche of the employee to have a benefit like this. They’ve been able to experience that during the pandemic and the zeitgeist of the modern worker has shifted — employees will go elsewhere where telework is offered.”
Beyond the new agreement, LaPointe said the union is looking at ways to make teleservice center work fully portable, to try to secure remote job opportunities in that component of SSA. The union is also proposing a 10-year study at field offices, to add more telework for employees who stay with the agency longer. The idea is to then also incentivize newer employees to stay with the agency, an effort to combat high staff attrition at SSA.
Training opportunities, mentoring and more
The updated contract provisions additionally support better training and career development for employees. Managers will have to ensure that employees have adequate time to attend and complete assigned training. LaPointe said this change is “huge.”
“Our training at SSA is a major pain point within the agency,” she said. “Based on agency focus groups and our own surveys, we have concluded that our training is sorely inadequate, and it’s resulting in a 17% attrition rate for new hires.”
Agency and union leaders will work together to develop and improve training modules for employees. LaPointe said she hopes part of that will include improvements to the mentorship program to help train new employees.
“We really want to develop a ‘train the trainer’ certification program within the agency, which will be a huge component of future recruitment and retention efforts,” she said.
The contract also solidifies official time for employees, who can allocate part of their time on the clock to read emails, agency transmittals and internal staff communications. SSA and AFGE first agreed to restore official time for employees last August.
“This is especially important in our teleservice centers, where employees are currently not given adequate time to read training materials and updates,” LaPointe said. “Instead of just being on the phone all day, now they will have actual dedicated duty time to read updates and be abreast of new changes.”
The contract includes more benefits for nursing parents, too — the agency has agreed to open new lactation centers at field offices and provide designated mini-fridges for employees.
And one unique part of the agreement will create a new process to replace current labor-management meetings. Now, AFGE and SSA will instead operate as a “labor-management cooperation council.” Agency and union leaders will co-chair and run the new partnership, and jointly determine meeting agenda items. The idea is to more proactively address issues affecting employees, and set a new standard for negotiations moving forward.
Finally, managers will now have to inform employees if a meeting they schedule will result in any disciplinary action. They will also have to remind employees of their right to have union representation present in those instances.
Attention shifts to budget deliberations in Congress
Tensions between unions and SSA leadership have remained high for years, as SSA faces its biggest shortage of employees in more than 25 years. AFGE leaders said high staff attrition during and after the COVID-19 pandemic — at least in part due to limited telework — has now led to unmanageable workloads and poor work-life balance for remaining staff. SSA lost nearly 4,500 bargaining unit employees in fiscal 2022 — over 10% of AFGE’s total membership for SSA.
The union has also repeatedly sounded the alarm over low pay and limited teleworking opportunities for field office employees. SSA ranked last in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings for 2022, after a steep 6-point drop on the engagement and satisfaction index.
But SSA leaders are hoping to turn the ship around. The agency requested $15.5 billion in funding for fiscal 2024, which would try to address many of the ongoing workforce challenges and hire more employees. The full budget request is “crucial,” SSA Press Officer Hinkle said, to restore SSA staffing, handle increasing workloads and improve IT modernization, while reducing backlogs.
“Our dedicated employees are doing their part to restore and improve service while working within our current funding levels,” Hinkle said. “Building the capacity to meet the public’s expectations for timely customer service requires sustained and sufficient funding and staffing levels.”
Funding remains uncertain, though, after the House recently proposed a $183 million cut to SSA’s operating budget for 2024.
AFGE’s Couture warned that the drastic spending cuts the House proposed would undermine the progress made in the updated collective bargaining agreement provisions. AFGE is calling for funding even above the Biden administration’s request, $17.5 billion, to go toward more salary and benefits for employees, as well as improvements for equipment, security and IT.
The updated provisions in the collective bargaining agreement between SSA and AFGE will take effect after SSA bargaining unit employees ratify them. Once finalized, the full agreement between SSA and AFGE, including the updated sections, will remain in place through October 2029.