After Having Their Computers Monitored, Employees Blast SSA Watchdog
Employee group pledges to bring its complaints to the White House and Congress.
A group representing employees of the Social Security Administration’s office of inspector general is calling on lawmakers and President Biden to take action against the watchdog office’s leadership, saying the leaders have lost the confidence of their employees.
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association’s promise to take its complaints directly to Capitol Hill and the White House follows a vote in which 98% of responding employees represented by the professional association said they no longer had faith in SSA Inspector General Gail Ennis. The inspector general has ignored employee complaints and defied efforts to engage with workers, the group said in a recent letter to Ennis. The association represents 90% of the IG’s agents.
Employee satisfaction has declined since Ennis took office in early 2019 and took a significant hit this summer when the IG told employees the agency had begun conducting surveys of employee computer logs and telephone records to ensure its largely remote workforce was engaging in work activities at the proper times. Ennis said the agency was weighing disciplinary actions for those employees who were allegedly slacking off during their telework hours.
After the law enforcement association raised concerns about those practices and other managerial decisions, asking Ennis to meet with labor representatives to discuss concerns, the IG responded directly to the workforce with a letter rejecting the group’s concerns.
FLEOA suggested the total number of OIG special agents—plain-clothed federal law enforcement personnel who conduct investigations—has dropped by 37% in the last 18 months, though Ennis said the overall office of investigations was down just 7% since the pandemic began. She also vowed to oversee a workforce increase in the coming months as the agency fills vacancies.
FLEOA noted the IG’s office collected civil monetary penalties worth $9.1 million in the six-month period starting in October 2018, according to the first semi-annual report Ennis filed, but that figure dropped to less than $600,000 two years later. Ennis countered that the IG has faced the “challenges of the pandemic,” but still managed to open more than 8,000 cases and obtain more than 800 criminal convictions. She also rejected FLEOA’s assertion that management had overly centralized oversight of training, saying it is still being approved at a normal rate.
Mary Miller, a spokeswoman for the OIG, said the agency could not immediately address everything in FLEOA's letter, but called it inaccurate and said the agency looked forward to "continuing our open dialogue with Congress on our oversight and other matters." She added that civil monetary penalties "vary from period to period due to a number of factors," including some being suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ennis defended her monitoring policy, which employees have said was creating a “dysfunctional” work environment.
“I am sure you would agree it is necessary, as stewards of taxpayer dollars, to hold employees accountable, when appropriate,” Ennis wrote in a letter to employees last month, which Government Executive obtained. “Failing to do so would be detrimental to public service, the OIG mission, and the morale of the many employees who go above and beyond in their contributions every day.”
In his response, FLEOA President Larry Cosme told Ennis employees had come forward to “engage your office and try to ameliorate their concerns.” Instead, Ennis had “thwarted our overture.”
“We cannot allow our members or the American people to be underserved by those tasked with protecting the world’s largest pension fund,” Cosme said. “Rest assured, this letter and our vote will be submitted to the congressional committees with oversight over the Social Security Administration as well as to the White House.”
Biden previously intervened in SSA leadership to fire then-Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, Trump-era holdovers that employee and advocacy groups had pushed the White House to remove. Ennis is also a Trump appointee, though inspectors general are not typically subjected to the same turnover with new administrations.
The IG’s office was ranked 382 out of 411 agency subcomponents on the Partnership for Public Service’s most recent best places to work rankings, which is compiled from the government’s annual Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey data. The office’s engagement score has fallen by 22% in the last two years.