Although most political appointees are expected to resign ahead of the president-elect’s inauguration next week, the two top employees at the Social Security Administration have terms that run until 2025.
Leaders of two unions representing employees at the Social Security Administration on Tuesday called on President-elect Biden to oust agency Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black on the first day of his administration.
American Federation of Government Employees Council 220 President Ralph De Juliis, whose union represents employees at Social Security field offices, and Association of Administrative Law Judges President Melissa McIntosh, who represents judges who hear Social Security disability cases, said at an event hosted by the advocacy group Social Security Works that the two Trump appointees are ill equipped to implement Biden’s agenda, both in terms of strengthening Social Security and ensuring the agency reopen to the public safely following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Social Security Administration has been a flashpoint in the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline federal employee unions. The agency has been among the swiftest and strictest in its implementation of a series of executive orders seeking to reduce the scope of collective bargaining, restrict the use of official time, and make it easier to fire federal workers.
“At Social Security, the labor-management relationship is terrible, and that’s the direct result of poor leadership from Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black,” De Juliis said. “Things started going downhill when they came on board. They did not communicate with the union, and soon as our new contract went into effect, they eliminated telework. Then, when COVID hit, they only let a limited number back on telework, and they finally relented only when the pandemic was declared and let everyone work from home.”
Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said agency leadership has repeatedly violated federal labor law in dealings with her union.
“Arbitrators have characterized their actions as ‘cavalier,’” she said. “They were found to have not honored the right to union representation during an investigative examination. Judges have been discriminated against for protected union activities, and they’ve been caught failing to provide information to the union. This is a deplorable, aberrant situation . . . We want to stop fighting the agency and get back to the furtherance of the agency’s mission.”
Although most political appointees are required to step down on Jan. 20 with Biden’s inauguration, the Social Security commissioner and deputy commissioner operate on fixed terms disconnected from presidential terms. Both Saul and Black are serving terms that are set to expire in 2025, and they can only be removed by the president for cause.
Matt Biggs, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Technical and Professional Employees, of which the AALJ is a subsidiary, said Saul and Black’s efforts through contract negotiations and regulations to allow non-judges to handle Social Security disability cases are evidence that they have sought to undermine the agency’s mission.
“The people before these administrative law judges are the most vulnerable citizens in our society,” Biggs said. “They’ve applied for disability benefits, and they’re deserving of their due process rights to be heard by an independent judge, not an employee of the agency who gets bonuses, who can be influenced, or whose performance ratings can be determined based on whether they give a certain determination in these cases.”
De Juliis said that leadership’s approach toward unions has trickled down and has become pervasive throughout the agency.
“Their attitudes have emboldened management at every level of the agency, including the local level and supervisors, to mistreat and undermine employees and to be disrespectful,” he said. “We’re working from home now, and instead of managing based on what people do and what they produce, they’re constantly watching people. We have a system where if you’re away from your computer, it could show up as ‘yellow,’ and they’re managing using that color coded system, like it’s 'Red Light, Green Light.' They don’t treat people with respect. They’re always accusatory, asking people what they’re doing and assuming they’re doing wrong.”
And nearly 10 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, De Juliis said the agency still does not appear to have a plan for protecting both employees and the public when local offices reopen.
“I was talking to somebody today, who was told on Friday, ‘You were exposed to COVID because you were hanging around a supervisor,’ and then they were told to come back on Monday,” he said. “Well, CDC guidance says you need to wait 10 days. So SSA doesn’t have a plan to bring people safely; they don’t have a plan to get the public back to the office safely. There’s no plan to clean, no plan for social distancing, and they have not shared with us the metrics on how they’ll determine in the 1,200 communities where there are SSA offices, when the metrics of COVID infections are such that it’ll be safe to bring people back.”