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Union: Social Security Biased Against Minorities in Performance Ratings

Although more than half of SSA’s frontline workers are minorities, they have accounted for less than 40% of top performance ratings doled out by the agency in recent years.

A union representing employees at the Social Security Administration this week accused the agency of failing to correct systemic bias in its performance appraisal process, in which white employees are receiving the lion’s share of top ratings despite making up less than half of the frontline workforce in recent years.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees said that management has been aware of the issue since at least 2015, when it agreed to settle a grievance with the union over the distribution of top performance ratings, but aside from two preliminary meetings, the agency has taken no action to correct the disparity.

According to data provided to Government Executive, in fiscal 2014, minority employees made up 54.3% of AFGE’s bargaining unit, but accounted for only 36.2% of the bargaining unit’s “Outstanding” performance ratings. The largest minority group—Black workers—accounted for 30.3% of the bargaining unit, but only 21.7% of top performance marks.

And while Latino employees made up 16.4% of the bargaining unit, only 8.7% of “Outstanding” ratings went to Latino workers. Similarly, while 10.5% of frontline employees at the agency have a disability, they only accounted for 5.5% of top ratings.

Those statistics were the basis of a grievance filed by the union in 2015, which ultimately led to a settlement with the agency and two meetings between the union and management on the issue. But AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture said the only meaningful change since the union's initial grievance has been that the agency has begun redacting elements of the dataset, such as the total numbers of employees in each demographic group, making it harder to track disparities.

“The agency has known about this since we filed the first grievance, so we’ve settled one grievance, but not the rest,” Couture said. “It’s turned into an annual rite, where we get ahold of this information and it resembles the figures we saw in years prior, and so we file yet another grievance. But unlike the first one, where they could arguably say they had not been aware of the problem, they were put on notice with the filing of that first grievance. They’ve failed to resolve the problem and have allowed it to compound itself.”

Couture said that systemic bias within the performance appraisal process has a ripple effect of discrimination throughout the agency’s personnel policy. Performance ratings are used to determine which employees are eligible for annual awards, cash bonuses, step increases and eventually merit promotions.

Social Security Administration spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the union’s method of aggregating appraisal data is “not statistically valid,” because it does not “account for job type, employee experience and many other factors.”

Couture said that in six years of filing grievances, Tiggemann’s statement is the first he has heard of the agency disputing the data management had provided.

“If the agency wasn’t concerned about the distribution of ratings, SSA would have outright denied the grievances with their own statistical analysis,” he said. “SSA never made any formal response or decision to any of the grievances. One can reasonably infer that SSA chose not to respond because they were concerned about potential liability if they had.”

Tiggemann said the agency has worked with AFGE “on ways to address their concerns.”

“Any assertion otherwise is patently false,” she said. “Our employees benefited as we engaged in settlement discussions and implemented suggestions from workgroups developed in conjunction with AFGE that led to adjustments in our rating system.”

But Couture said the only engagement from management on the issue was two labor-management meetings that occurred as part of the 2015 settlement agreement, and they led to no meaningful changes.

“If that’s what they’re trying to say, that’s patently false,” Couture said. “There were two seven-on-seven meetings that resulted in no resolution of the ongoing issues, and again, the last one was held years ago . . . They’ve responded to one grievance with a non-decision ‘decision’ that stated, ‘Thank you for filing and sharing your concerns and we’re taking this very seriously.’ But there’s been nothing on the merits, no defenses raised by management, nothing. Every year since [2015], SSA has taken the position of not responding at all.”

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