Although officials said the agency is working to expand telework as much as possible, union leaders disputed that, describing “Kafkaesque” inaction.
The Social Security Administration announced Monday night that it would close all local field offices effective Tuesday, as part of an effort to protect older and otherwise at-risk members of the public from the novel coronavirus outbreak. But despite assurances that the agency would begin expanding telework, employees said that so far, nothing has changed.
In a press release, agency spokesman Mark Hinkle touted the decision to close local field and hearing offices as an effort to protect Social Security customers, and stressed the agency would still provide services online and via phone.
“All local Social Security offices will be closed to the public for in-person service starting Tuesday, March 17, 2020,” Hinkle wrote. “This decision protects the population we serve—older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and our employees during the coronavirus pandemic.”
And in an email to employees, Commissioner Andrew Saul indicated the agency would begin allowing people to work from home, although in some cases not full time.
“Due to the nature of our work, some of us must continue to come into the office to handle critical workloads,” Saul said. “In these situations, supervisors will try to enable you to work from home as much as possible, but not every day. We will also take measures to distance staff from each other while in the office.”
In an email, SSA spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the agency is offering telework to employees to the greatest “extent possible.”
But AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture described that statement as “misleading.” He said that despite the commissioner’s message to employees, no definitive action has been taken to expand telework, and that the agency is still outright refusing to allow employees in its operations components to work remotely, even though that work generally involves no interaction with the public.
“The agency is trying to portray itself as having expanded telework across the board to the maximum extent possible to all employees with portable work, when in fact it has done very little in the way of doing so,” Couture said. “So far there’s been nothing for field offices or hearings offices. There’s nothing for teleservice centers or payment centers.”
Couture said that despite Saul’s email to the contrary, when he met with agency officials Tuesday morning, they said decisions had not yet been made with respect to telework.
“I had a call with labor relations this morning, and I asked a question about the email and what are the components’ plans for expanding telework,” Couture said. “I was told that no decisions had been made. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Couture said employees were furious to discover that telework in fact had not expanded with the closure of the local offices.
“Their hopes were raised and then dashed, and now I’m dealing with a lot of angry employees who believed that finally, the agency was doing right by its employees, only to find out that it is not,” he said. “It’s egregious. It’s bizarre.”
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