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Social Security’s Justification for Ending Telework Pilot Doesn’t Add Up

The agency has delayed the end until Nov. 23, but management denied the American Federation of Government Employees’ demand to bargain over implementation.

Since the Social Security Administration’s announcement last week that it would end its seven-year-old telework pilot program for nearly 12,000 employees, officials have cited two reasons for Commissioner Andrew Saul’s decision: long wait times for customers and an inability to evaluate employee performance.

In an open letter to the public posted to the Social Security website, Saul said that despite resistance from “employees and the three unions who represent them,” ending telework is part of an effort to improve customer service across the agency. He also decried characterizations of his partial hiring freeze as a hiring freeze, although the agency used that phrase in its own internal correspondence.

“Some people may believe that is a ‘hiring freeze’ but I call it ‘smart hiring’—sending our resources to the front lines where you benefit most,” Saul wrote.

SSA Deputy Commissioner for Operations Grace Kim’s email informing employees about the end of the telework pilot program said that: “In recent years, Operations has faced a number of significant service challenges, including increases in wait times for customers on the 800# and in field offices, processing times for program workloads, and PSC backlogs. [In] order to focus all of our resources on providing service to our customers, I have decided to end the telework pilot in Operations at this time.”

Kim said employees would have until Nov. 8 to make alternate arrangements, but the agency has since agreed to provide an additional two weeks to prepare, setting a new end date of Nov. 23. Management denied, however, a demand from the American Federation of Government Employees to negotiate over how the telework wind down would be implemented, as is customary when an agency changes a bargaining unit’s working conditions. 

Government Executive asked the Social Security Administration repeatedly for data on wait times both at field offices and for assistance through the agency’s 800 number, as well as evidence that any increases in wait times were connected to teleworking employees. SSA Spokesman Mark Hinkle said that wait times for the 800 number were in excess of 20 minutes, but declined to provide any additional information.

According to a July 2017 report from the Social Security Inspector General on telework at the agency, the program did produce slight increased wait times for customers visiting field offices in person. In the first half of fiscal 2017, visitors waited an average of 30 minutes and 40 seconds for assistance at field offices where a portion of employees were teleworking, compared to only 27:22 on average at offices without telework.

But counter to the agency’s assertions, the inspector general found that telework actually improved productivity for employees at teleservice centers, which administer the 800 number. In fiscal 2017, teleworkers took an average of four additional calls per day than non-teleworkers, resolved those calls more quickly than employees in the office and spent an additional half hour each day helping customers.

Hinkle told Government Executive that another reason for ending the telework program is that managers cannot evaluate teleworking employees’ performance under the current rules.

“That pilot failed to put in place controls to measure the effect on public service or provide management with the ability to evaluate employee performance consistent with the Telework Act, which also provides that some functions require employees to work in the office,” Hinkle said. “Commissioner Saul embraces his responsibility to better manage the agency and improve the service Social Security provides to millions of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

That argument perplexed officials at the American Federation of Government Employees. Sherry Jackson, third vice president of AFGE Council 220, which represents employees in Social Security’s operations units, said teleworking employees’ actions are heavily monitored for evaluation.

“All of our keystrokes are measured,” Jackson said. “Any inputs we do on the computer are monitored and measured. Everything on the SSA system is measured, so it’s disingenuous to say that there’s no productivity and no control over what people are doing in their homes, because everything on a government computer is measured and recorded. If people were not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, this pilot would have been ended and not continued for seven years.”

Article 41 of the previous collective bargaining agreement between Social Security and AFGE set up the rules of the telework pilot program. In addition to a number of eligibility requirements, which include maintaining at least an “acceptable level of performance,” there are a number of provisions regarding employee evaluations.

“Management will evaluate work performed at the [alternate duty station] in accordance with the Telework Program Agreement . . . Management may require employees on telework to submit a written daily account of work performed at the [alternate duty station],” the document states.

Additionally, the agency can bar an employee from teleworking if he or she no longer meets the original eligibility requirements, fails to comply with the terms of his or her telework agreement, or if “there is a consistent diminishment in the employee’s performance at the [alternate duty station] in comparison to performance at the [office].”