Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., led the senators in writing the letter.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., led the senators in writing the letter. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Democratic Senators Urge Social Security to Restore Telework

Lawmakers ask the agency to reconsider its decision to end a 6-year-old pilot program, citing concerns about the burden it places on employees and productivity.

A group of 44 Democratic senators on Monday urged Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul to reverse his decision to cancel telework for nearly 12,000 employees.

In October, the Social Security Administration announced that in November, it would end its six-year-old telework pilot program for operational components following the implementation of a new union contract between the agency and the American Federation of Government Employees, imposed by the Federal Service Impasses Panel earlier this year. The decision left roughly 12,000 workers, who for years have worked remotely from one to three days per week, scrambling to make alternate arrangements.

The agency has repeatedly cited long wait times for service on its 800 number as justification for ending the program, as well as a lack of an “evaluation plan” for the program.

In a letter Monday, 44 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., urged Saul to “reconsider” the decision to end the telework program.

“We understand that SSA’s new contract with the American Federation of Government Employees has just come into effect, and that this contract conferred some degree of discretion to SSA management to set new rules for teleworking,” the lawmakers wrote. “We do not believe, however, that this justifies management’s unilateral decision to rescind telework entirely for the 12,000 affected employees . . . We are concerned that SSA is not providing sufficient time for workers to alter their arrangements to account for this policy change.”

The senators wrote that while improving customer service for Social Security beneficiaries is a laudable goal, killing telework is not the way to go about it.

“We recognize that an issue of this gravity demands a response and we stand ready to help,” senators said of Social Security’s case backlog. “We fear, however, that abruptly ending telework threatens to make the problem worse, not better. We fear it will harm productivity by demoralizing employees who must scramble to make alternate childcare and other arrangements, encouraging early retirements, and undermining efforts to recruit promising new workers.”

The lawmakers cited Government Executive’s reporting on a 2017 Social Security inspector general’s report that found that although telework slightly increased wait times at agency field offices, the practice improved productivity at teleservice centers, the only area the agency specifically cited as needing improvement. And they noted that telework comes with a number of long-term cost savings that would be forfeited if the program ends.

“In fiscal year 2017, SSA estimated that it had saved $900,000 on rental costs through its telework program,” senators wrote. “Other agencies also reported savings in transit subsidy costs, utility costs and office supplies. Given this information and the IG’s findings noted above, we are interested in seeing any evidence you may have that indicates that eliminating telework will increase agency productivity and efficiency.”