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Social Security Administration, Union Spar over Reentry Plans

Union officials say they suspect the agency is withholding details of its reentry plan to avoid having to negotiate over it, an accusation management denies.

The Social Security Administration is again embroiled in a spat with one of its labor unions, this time over the agency’s plans to bring employees back to physical work sites.

In November, officials at the agency announced a plan to bring employees back to the office in January and outlined that different amounts of telework would be available to workers depending on their positions—headquarters staff could telework up to five days a week, Office of Hearing Operations employees could work remotely between three and four days per week, and field office workers could only telework twice a week.

But the initial return-to-office date of Jan. 3 has since been pushed back, at least in part because the agency and unions have not yet reached agreement on the implementation of the reentry plan. The agency must give employees 30 days’ notice before requiring them to return to their traditional worksite.

In a statement to Government Executive, Social Security Administration spokesman Darren Lutz stressed that there are a number of ways for members of the public to receive service while field offices remain mostly closed, and noted that the agency’s senior leadership, including acting Director Kilolo Kijakazi began reentry on Dec. 1.

“It is important for the public to know that if they have access to the internet, their first stop for service should be SSA.gov,” he said. “They can also call their local field office number or the national 800 number [1-800-772-1213]. We continue to see people by appointment only in our offices for limited, critical issues . . . Labor negotiations, required by law, are part of [the reentry] process.”

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents Office of Hearing Operations employees, and chief negotiator for AFGE on the agency’s reentry plan, said much of the holdup comes down to the agency’s insistence that all reentry negotiations take place at the national level and the agency’s reentry plan is too vague, given the myriad of job descriptions and working conditions across the agency.

“AFGE has got around 45,000 bargaining unit employees spread across virtually every component of SSA,” he said. “The positions and work they do, whether they see the public or not, and the functions that each of these components serve are very, very different, and even within the components you have subcomponents and divisions where the work can be different. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach we can take with how the reentry process will operate, proceed and affect employees based on their position and the work they do.”

Couture said that making negotiations more difficult is distrust over whether the agency is being transparent about its plans. Union officials suspect that the agency actually has more specific reentry plans for each of its components, but is simply withholding that information in order to gain an upper hand in bargaining.

“Management has asserted that there are no component-level plans and the only reentry plan is the agency-wide plan, but I assert that the agency-wide plan is vague, bare-bones and doesn’t specify with any degree of detail what each component would do with regard to governmentwide services,” Couture said. “It strains credulity that the components don’t have any plans on how to implement reentry, especially given the state of the pandemic, with community spread still high or substantial in most parts of the country.”

Feeding that suspicion was a briefing held by the Office of Hearing Operations for AFGE Council 215 last week on what the office described as “phase 1 of reentry,” in which the agency would begin a limited resumption of in-person disability claims hearings beginning in March. Those hearings would be conducted by management administrative law judges and supported by non-bargaining unit staffers, meaning it was not subject to collective bargaining.

“The agency’s response was that [the Office of Hearing Operations] made a mistake and that it’s not actually reentry phase 1,” Couture said. “This is [Kafka’s] The Castle, I’m living The Castle right now. SSA’s position is that [the hearings office] made a mistake, it’s not phase 1 of reentry and that these are actions that [the office] is beginning now under the current workplace safety plan . . . to which I replied that these hearings don’t begin until March 9, 2022, after reentry is set to begin and after the date you assert that the workplace safety plan will be replaced by Workplace Safety Plan 2.0.”

Lutz denied that the Social Security Administration has any reentry plan aside from the national plan currently under negotiations.

“SSA has been completely transparent with the labor unions representing our employees and informed them that there is only one agency-wide reentry plan, which applies to all SSA components,” Lutz said. “The resumption of a limited, finite number of in-person hearings for certain aged cases to be conducted by non-bargaining unit administrative law judges is distinct from the agency-level reentry plan and it is not part of reentry for bargaining unit employees.”

In a Dec. 17 letter to Kijakazi, AFGE National President Everett Kelley escalated the issue, citing the acting director's desire for a “reset” in labor-management relations at the agency, expressed in a conversation last month. 

“In the weeks since that conversation, I am sorry to say that labor relations at SSA have not improved at all, either in tone or in substance,” Kelley said. “Collective bargaining over reentry has been characterized by a lack of transparency, unfounded accusations of delays on the part of the union, and perhaps most concerning, an apparent refusal to engage in bargaining reentry at either the component or local level in spite of the fact that circumstances surrounding reentry vary so much both in terms of operational considerations as well as community transmission data.”

Kelley suggested that management negotiators may not have provided Kijakazi with the “unvarnished truth” of collective bargaining at the agency.

“As a leader, I know how important it is to be able to rely on senior staff to provide solid, reliable information so that the best decisions can be made on operational matters facing the organization,” he wrote. “I want that for SSA as much as I want that for AFGE. But I have serious doubts that you are being provided with good information.”