This story has been updated with comment.
Social Security Administration employees nationwide achieved some gains in working conditions and benefits in a contract agreement reached Wednesday, after more than two years of negotiations.
The contract agreement between SSA and the American Federation of Government Employees Union is currently a “conceptual,” oral agreement between the two parties, but the union expects to have a contract signed with the agency by mid-April, said Witold Skwierczynski, an AFGE representative. Once a contract is ratified, it will be valid for four years.
The agreement has been in the works since December 2009, according to a statement issued Thursday by the union.
Negotiations between the two groups have taken place two weeks every month since that time. In September 2011, AFGE took the bargaining to the Federal Service Impasses Panel.
“When the agency saw we were prepared to go to the impasses panel, they started changing their attitude with regards to contract negotiations,” Skwierczynski told Government Executive. “We were convinced they’d be happy to just roll over our current contracts for another four years.”
According to Skwierczynski, the union “took a lot of hits” on a number of issues in its prior contract, signed in 2005.
If the agreement reached Wednesday is inked as a formal contract next month, employees will see an increase in employer contributions to some vision benefits, a rise in transit subsidies and more in credit hours for student employees, he said.
Under the new agreement, SSA managers will be required to inform an employee that he or she has a right to a union representative during discussions of potential disciplinary action against the employee. In the past, managers were not inquired to inform the employee of their rights, Skwierczynski said.
Additionally, the new agreement expands employee “personal rights” -- including gender identity in the agency’s discrimination policy, a new anti-bullying provision and a lactation policy for breastfeeding mothers.
Many other items AFGE hoped to gain in the new agreement have been deferred, the union said, including provisions regarding electronic meetings and telework.
“Those are sticky positions where the parties are pretty opposite,” Skwierczynski said, calling SSA’s telework policy “extremely restrictive.’ The union is requesting a telework policy that allows employees to work at home two to four days a week.
SSA confirmed the conceptual agreement in a statement Thursday and said it expects to meet with AFGE again early next month.
The agency is aiming to recoup its losses in funding and employee levels from fiscal 2011 budget cuts in this year’s budget.
In the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal, SSA requests $11.9 billion -- nearly $30 million above fiscal 2012 budget. The agency plans to begin replacing 7,000 state and federal employees it lost since a hiring freeze from 2011.