SSA adds ‘episodic’ telework flexibility for agency employees

Employees at SSA now have a little more telework flexibility after the agency signed a new memorandum of understanding with one of its unions.

With government funding still uncertain, and amid staff burnout and high turnover, the Social Security Administration is starting to get creative in how it’s encouraging employees to stay in their jobs.

Under a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between SSA and the American Federation of Government Employees, signed March 1, employees can now request “episodic telework” — or extra work-from-home days — when unexpected personal circumstances arise.

The new flexibility, which took effect March 4, gives SSA employees the option to occasionally request taking an extra day of telework in extenuating circumstances. That’s instead of having to take time off or dip into annual leave.

“It may seem so small, but it means so much to a workforce who is really starving for flexibility, peace of mind and the ability to be able to care for their family and still meet the needs of their job,” AFGE Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe said in an interview.

The MOU applies for all AFGE bargaining unit employees working at SSA nationwide. LaPointe said she hopes the new MOU will have a positive ripple effect of better workforce productivity, and by extension, better agency services.

Even through relatively small tweaks like episodic telework, the ultimate goal is to address the simultaneous challenges of overworked employees and a rapidly growing number of Social Security beneficiaries.

In a larger turn of events, SSA recently got its first permanent, Senate-confirmed commissioner in years. AFGE officials have said the changes since Martin O’Malley stepped into the top agency role have been palpable, even just a few months after his confirmation.

“The commissioner heard us — he recognized that that would be a way to decrease absenteeism and allow employees to stay productive,” LaPointe said.

Agency spending levels are the next challenge SSA will face. To try to improve services and morale at SSA, AFGE is proposing a supplemental funding package of $20 billion over the next 10 years.

The highly anticipated budget proposal from House and Senate appropriators, which has a deadline of March 22, is unlikely to yield the results AFGE is hoping for.

“We’re severely underfunded in our operating costs, and current budget talks aren’t signaling that we’re going to get much money this year,” LaPointe said. “So, we’re really getting creative.”

Right now, SSA can make small tweaks such as the recent MOU without any budget changes, LaPointe said. But bigger, more impactful changes will require permanent and stable funding for the agency.

“Overnight, the morale shifted in a more positive direction as a result of this deal,” LaPointe said. “We’re just looking forward to seeing what other base hits we can get.”

How will the MOU work?

Episodic telework is different from the agency’s overall telework policy. The flexibility was already an option in infrequent cases where a special work project might necessitate a day of working from home. But the new MOU now allows employees to use personal situations as a rationale for episodic telework.

“Maybe they have a school-aged child that had to come home sick for the day so the employee can do agency work while the child may just need an adult in the household to monitor the situation — or maybe your car broke down on your way to work, and you can’t get into the office,” LaPointe said.

SSA managers will have to approve any episodic telework requests. The MOU states that a manager must decide on the request within five working days. If the answer is no, managers have to submit a written statement explaining why they made that decision.

As another part of the MOU, SSA employees can also opt to split up their workday hours between in-person work and telework — on occasion, and with approval from management.

That flexibility can be beneficial, for instance, when employees have an unexpected event arise in the middle of the day that pulls them away from work for a short time. With a split shift option, employees can then telework afterward, rather than spending time commuting back to the office, LaPointe explained. She called the new flexibility a “win-win.”

“It allows the employee to feel like they have more workplace flexibilities, and then it allows managers to have more employees available,” she said.

Who teleworks at SSA?

A vast majority of SSA’s roughly 59,000 employees is eligible for telework. About 60% of SSA employees teleworked three days per week, and about 32% worked one or two days per week, during fiscal 2022 — the most recent data available from the Office of Personnel Management.

Like many agencies, SSA recently announced an increase of in-office work for certain components starting April 7. Despite the changes for some, SSA employees stationed at field offices, teleservice centers and hearing offices will continue their current balance of in-person work and telework.

Many agencies are mandating higher in-office presence for federal employees. But during multiple congressional committee hearings, agency leaders said continuing telework will be essential to recruitment, retention and satisfaction of federal employees.

More flexibilities — even seemingly small ones — could be part of what sways a federal employee to continue working at an agency. Telework can also lead to cost savings, and employees being able to work effectively, OPM has said.

“It costs more to replace a worker when they leave the agency, based on the sunk costs of all the training and investment that we put into a worker,” LaPointe said.

After the tweaks to episodic flexibility, there may be more changes ahead for SSA employees as well. But the biggest workforce pivots likely can’t happen without stable funding.

“The Senate confirmed the sort of Babe Ruth of rehabilitating government,” LaPointe said. “We really need Congress to fund us, so he can start to hit the home runs.”

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