Social Security Restores Telework to Previous Levels, But Continues to Resist Expansion to Combat Coronavirus
Union filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday accusing the agency of forcing employees to work in an unsafe workplace.
The Social Security Administration on Friday restored telework in most of the agency’s components to the level before management instituted strict cuts earlier this month, following weeks of pleading from federal employee unions. But the American Federation of Government Employees described the move as “the bare minimum” the agency could have done.
On March 2, the agency instituted a variety of cuts to telework, which varied by agency subcomponent and were announced in January. Since then, AFGE officials have urged the agency to rescind those changes and sign up as many employees to work remotely as possible, as the threat of the novel coronavirus has grown.
Shortly after the Office of Management and Budget encouraged agencies to expand telework, particularly for older employees and those with preexisting health issues, Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul emailed employees announcing the agency would restore telework to pre-March levels for most subcomponents.
The change does not apply to the Office of Operations or the Office of Hearings Operations, which Saul wrote would determine whether to restore telework on a regional, case-by-case basis.
“The Office of Operations and Office of Hearings Operations will designate field telework levels based on geographic conditions and public service needs,” Saul wrote. “With this rapidly evolving situation, we continue to assess where additional telework may be appropriate.”
Additionally, Saul said that the recently announced “Work at Home Quarantine” program, where employees who cannot come to work due to quarantine restrictions may work remotely, would be expanded to federal workers whose children are home because of school closures related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Employees who are pregnant or are otherwise part of a high risk population also may request to work remotely through this program.
Although Saul did not allow for full-time telework in the current set of changes, he left the door open to authorizing it later on.
“In certain locations, office closures may be necessary,” Saul said. “You will be notified if you are in one of these affected offices. The agency may order employees to work from home with or without a telework agreement when offices are closed. In this case, employees' homes temporarily become their duty stations under evacuation rules.”
In a statement, Social Security spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the agency is trying to balance protecting employees and maintaining public service.
“We are working to balance between protecting our employees, the public we serve, and continuing vital service,” she said. “Telework can help us with that during this unusual circumstance. We are implementing additional steps to protect our employees who may be most vulnerable to COVID-19, to enhance social distancing for all offices including by expanding telework for many employees, and to address steps that must be taken in certain office locations where COVID-19 is most prevalent.”
But AFGE said Friday’s moves remain inadequate to protecting the health of both Social Security employees and members of the public. On Thursday, AFGE Council 215, which represents employees at the agency’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration accusing the Social Security Administration of “actively prohibiting employees from taking reasonable precautions to protect themselves, and creating an environment of confusion and uncertainty by refusing to provide management personnel and employees with adequate written standards and guidance with regard to dealing with the current COVID-19 outbreak.”
In a statement, AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture said more must be done to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
“SSA has done the barest minimum possible in order to claim that they are taking this situation seriously, which they clearly are not,” Couture said. “No provisions have been made to protect employees in the district and hearing offices who come in contact with visitors every day—visitors who are highly vulnerable to this virus due to their age or physical conditions.”