Buildings are flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura on Thursday near Lake Charles, La.

Buildings are flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura on Thursday near Lake Charles, La. David J. Phillip / AP

Social Security Denies Lake Charles Employees Weather and Safety Leave Despite Category 4 Hurricane

Just hours after Hurricane Laura made land fall along the western Louisiana coast, employees at the agency’s Lake Charles, La., field office were expected to work from hotel rooms after evacuating ahead of the storm.

Less than 24 hours before Hurricane Laura made landfall along the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm, officials at the Social Security Administration told employees at its Lake Charles, La., field office that they would not be eligible for weather and safety leave.

Instead, employees forced to evacuate ahead of the hurricane were expected to work remotely from their hotel rooms on unsecured public Wi-Fi connections or take annual or sick leave, just three hours after the storm had left the area.

Joel Smith, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3184, which represents Social Security workers in Louisiana, said management informed employees they would not be able to take weather and safety leave in a teleconference meeting Wednesday morning. Although there is no written record of the leave denial, an IT employee sent all employees in the office instructions on how to connect to the agency’s virtual private network over public wireless Internet connections.

“Their justification is that the employees were told to take their laptops with them when they evacuated, and if they’re in a safe location with their laptop, that becomes their work site and they’ll be expected to work,” Smith said. “[These] employees were hit with Hurricane Laura last night at around 1 a.m., it was a direct hit, and the storm passed around 6 a.m. And employees were informed that they had to be working, performing agency duties, in their evacuated areas and hotel rooms by 9 a.m. on unsecured Wi-Fi connections, potentially in the presence of third parties, or they’d be required to use their own vacation time.”

Article 9 of AFGE’s contract with the Social Security Administration states that the agency will follow the federal law governing weather and safety leave in the event of a natural disaster. That law states that agencies should grant leave to employees in the event of a natural disaster if they are prevented from performing work at an “approved location.”

Smith decried the agency’s apparent effort to consider hotel rooms and other evacuation centers to be “approved locations,” noting the sensitivity of the information employees handle. Hotel wireless Internet is not as secure as an employee’s personal home connection, and it would be easy for family members or other hotel guests to overhear discussions of customers’ personal information.

Officials at the Social Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Smith said the decision is harmful to employees, since they will likely need to take additional leave in the coming days once they return to their homes.

“Obviously, employees are upset,” he said. “They don’t know when they’ll even be able to return home, or if they’ll even have homes to return to. They’re concerned, because they’re trying to perform their duties under threat of having to use their vacation time that they’ll need for meeting with insurance adjusters and repairing their homes. On top of that, they’re thinking, 'Hey, I’ve got family in my room or whomever, and I don’t want them to hear about others’ personal information.' ”

AFGE is in the process of preparing to file grievances over what the union sees as a breach of its collective bargaining agreement, Smith said.

“This is my fifth or sixth hurricane that I’ve addressed as a union local president, but it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced employees being forced to take vacation time or work from hotels on the same day they were ravaged by a hurricane,” he said.

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