Social Security employees will return to the office in January – Community News
Social Security

Social Security employees will return to the office in January

The Social Security Administration announced last week that its workers are expected to return to their traditional workplaces in January, although some elements of the agency’s plan have left union leaders perplexed and baffled.

The agency unveiled its return plan to employees on Friday, setting a target date for employees to return to the facilities by January 3. While that day will mark the end of the agency’s maximum telecommuting posture it has taken since March 2020, employees will have more access to telecommuting than before the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as before – Commissioner Andrew Saul limited flexibility on the workplace in both 2019 and 2020.

The amount of telecommuting available to employees varies depending on where they work within the agency, although anyone who has worked remotely during the pandemic is eligible for at least “episodic” telecommuting. While many headquarters employees are allowed to telecommute up to five days a week, most Office of Hearings Operations employees will be limited to three to four days a week, while field workers can only work remotely twice a week.

The plan also includes provisions to reduce personal work if COVID-19 cases peak in a particular region. The agency said it will monitor transmission statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for each of its facilities on a weekly basis.

“When the level of transmission related to a particular SSA facility increases from low or moderate to substantial or high, SSA will, as soon as operationally feasible, use the protocols recommended for areas of substantial or high transmission as described in this plan, in accordance with with CDC guidance and guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force,” the plan reads. “For example, the agency will not wait for a multi-day or multi-week trend to be established.”

While officials from the American Federation of Government Employees said they appreciated the agency’s release of its plan to return to offices two months ahead of its target date and stated it would honor collective bargaining obligations ahead of implementation, she’s frustrated by some elements of the plan.

Rich Couture, chairman of AFGE Council 215, which represents employees of the Office of Hearing Operations, objected to the Social Security Administration’s plan to end work from home through a quarantine program on Jan. 2.

“We need to make sure we care for vulnerable workers and workers with family members in risk categories for COVID, not to mention parents of school-age children where we still face issues such as tracing contacts with students and children,” according to Couture. “Those protocols will require greater agency flexibility for employees with child and care situations that will arise. We saw some of these issues in February and March 2020 when the pandemic first got underway and we were trying to make sure workers were protected, and many of those issues still exist.”

In a statement to head of government, the agency said that “there are policies within normal operating procedures that allow for necessary quarantine,” although it did not specify what those policies were.

And Ralph de Juliis, chairman of AFGE Council 220, which represents field office workers, is urging the agency to open field offices by appointment only, a model already in use by the Internal Revenue Service and many state and local government agencies.

“Social Security has not said how it will meet its public service indicators when it adds this whole new workload in the form of [field office] lobby,” said de Juliis. “If SSA has a plan to do what the union has suggested and adopt an IRS model, which is by appointment only, we will not sink. But if the plan is to open the lobby, that’s going to be a very, very difficult challenge, because SSA has lost about 1,200 to 1,300 employees, so our headcount has dropped. When that was the business model, even before COVID, we lost 25-35% of incoming calls because people got tired of waiting and 5-10% of those who came into the office because they got tired of waiting.”

In addition, de Juliis said he was baffled by the vaccination rules for non-employees entering Social Security services. All employees and contractors must be vaccinated unless they have been granted an exemption under President Biden’s vaccine mandate, but the return plan provides for a two-tier system for visitors to the agency.

Under the plan, some visitors will be required to demonstrate within three days that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a negative test result, but those rules will not apply to visitors “seeking a public benefit”.

“Requirements regarding vaccination status and COVID-19 testing and results do not apply to members of the public entering any SSA facility to obtain any public service or benefit, including Social Security field offices and hearings,” sets the plan. “If not fully vaccinated, these individuals must comply with all relevant CDC guidelines, including wearing a mask and keeping physical distance from other people.”

De Juliis said an apparent double standard could cause complications for the agency, as well as workers who have to deal with unvaccinated individuals.

“People are already complaining that maybe we can only ask if someone has been vaccinated, but can’t ask for proof, and as a result people will lie,” he said. “[This] is a policy that may sound good, but they haven’t thought about it.”

The agency said its rules for visitors to its facilities are based on “government-wide guidelines that define visitors and visitors seeking a public benefit.”

“During the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through face-to-face appointments for certain situations at local offices across the country and through options such as online, telephone and video service,” the agency said. “[Acting] Commissioner [Kilolo] Kijakazi supports telecommuting, provided there is accountability and we can serve the public remotely as efficiently as in the office. . . Social Security continues to comply with all applicable employment obligations, regarding return and all other aspects of working conditions for our employees.”