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Social Security Employees Slated to Return to Offices in January

Restrictions on telework and confusing vaccine rules for visitors to SSA offices rankle union officials, who have demanded to bargain over employees’ reentry to their traditional worksites.

The Social Security Administration announced last week that its employees tentatively will be expected to return to their traditional worksites in January, although some elements of the agency’s plan have perplexed and rankled union leaders.

The agency unveiled its reentry plan to employees Friday, setting a target date for employees to return to facilities of Jan. 3. Although that day will mark the end of the agency’s maximum telework posture that it has held since March 2020, employees will have greater access to telework than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as before then-Commissioner Andrew Saul restricted the workplace flexibility both in 2019 and 2020.

The amount of telework available to employees varies depending on where they work within the agency, although all who worked remotely during the pandemic will be eligible for at least “episodic” telework. While many headquarters staff will be allowed to telework up to five days per week, most employees in the Office of Hearings Operations will be restricted to between three and four days per week, while field office workers will only be able to work remotely twice a week.

The plan also includes provisions to scale back in-person work if COVID-19 cases spike in a particular region. The agency said that it will monitor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community transmission metric for each of its facilities on a weekly basis.

“When the level of transmission related to a given SSA facility increases from low or moderate to substantial or high, SSA will, as soon as operationally feasible, utilize those protocols recommended for areas of substantial or high transmission as detailed in this plan, consistent with CDC guidelines and guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force,” the plan states. “The agency will not wait, for example, for a multi-day or multi-week trend to be established.”

Although officials at the American Federation of Government Employees said they appreciated that the agency released its plan two months ahead of its targeted date to return to offices and stated that it would fulfill collective bargaining obligations ahead of implementation, they were frustrated by some elements of the plan.

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents Office of Hearing Operations employees, objected to the Social Security Administration’s plan to end the work at home by quarantine—a program that had allowed full-time telework for employees in high-risk categories—on Jan. 2.

“We have to make sure we’re taking care of vulnerable employees and employees with family members in high risk categories for COVID, not to mention parents of school aged children where we’re still going to be dealing with issues like contact tracing with students and children,” Couture said. “Those protocols will require enhanced flexibility on the part of the agency for employees with child and dependent care situations that are going to arise. Some of these issues we saw in February and March 2020, when the pandemic was first gearing up and we were trying to make sure employees were being protected, and a lot of those issues still exist.”

In a statement to Government Executive, the agency said that “there are policies within normal operating procedures that allow for any necessary quarantining,” although it did not specify what those policies were.

Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents field office workers, is pushing the agency to open field offices by appointment only, a model already in use by the Internal Revenue Service and many state and local government agencies.

“Social Security hasn’t said how it will meet its public service indicators when it adds this whole new workload in the form of the [field office] lobby,” de Juliis said. “If SSA has a plan to do as the union has suggested and adopt an IRS model, which is by appointment only, we won’t sink. But if the plan is to open the lobby, that’s going to be a very, very difficult challenge, because SSA has lost something like 1,200 to 1,300 employees, so our staffing is down. When that was the business model even before COVID, we lost 25-35% of phone calls coming in because people got tired of waiting and 5-10% of those who came into the office because they got tired of waiting.”

Additionally, de Juliis said he was baffled by the vaccination rules for non-employees who enter Social Security facilities. All employees and contractors must be vaccinated unless they have received an exemption, by virtue of President Biden’s vaccine mandate, but the reentry plan establishes a two-tier system for agency visitors.

Under the plan, some visitors will be required to show proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or a negative test result within three days, but those rules do not apply to visitors who are “seeking a public benefit.”

“Requirements related to vaccination status, and COVID-19 testing and results, do not apply to members of the public entering an SSA facility to obtain a public service or benefit, including Social Security field offices and hearings offices,” the plan states. “If they are not fully vaccinated, these individuals must comply with all relevant CDC guidance, including wearing a mask and physically distancing from other people.”

De Juliis said that apparent double standard could create complications for the agency, as well as for employees who are required to interact with unvaccinated individuals.

“People are already complaining that we might only be able to ask about whether someone is vaccinated but can’t ask for proof, and as a result people will lie,” he said. “[This] is a policy that might sound good, but they haven’t thought it through.”

The agency said that its rules governing visitors to its facilities are based on “governmentwide guidance which defines visitors and visitors seeking a public benefit.”

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” the agency said. “[Acting] Commissioner [Kilolo] Kijakazi supports telework, provided there is accountability and we can serve the public remotely as efficiently as we do in the office . . . Social Security continues to meet all applicable labor obligations, with regard to reentry and all other aspects of working conditions for our employees.”