Social Security management has long had a tense relationships with unions.

Social Security management has long had a tense relationships with unions. wingedwolf / iStock / Getty Images Plus

New union contract offers hope for better labor relations at the Social Security Administration

The American Federation of Government Employees and Social Security management will meet on a bimonthly basis to collaborate on issues like improving training, designing a child care subsidy and more.

The Social Security Administration and the nation’s largest federal employee union on Wednesday announced that they had reached a preliminary agreement to update a portion of their collective bargaining agreement and extend the deal until 2029, in what labor leaders hope will be the first step to repairing the long-fraught relationship between the union and agency management.

Although labor-management relationships at federal agencies often vacillate between collaborative and oppositional depending on which political party controls the White House, Social Security management has had a reputation for having at best strained relations with the agency's unions regardless of who’s in charge. And the first two years of the Biden administration were no exception, with officials from the American Federation of Government Employees frequently sparring with management over issues like post-COVID-19 reentry to traditional office spaces, training and benefits aimed at retaining employees during the agency’s ongoing staffing crisis.

Labor leaders were optimistic Wednesday that things may soon turn a corner, however, thanks to their agreement with management last week over updates to their union contract. The updates include a number of immediate tweaks to current policies as well as an avenue for the parties to work collaboratively to find long-term solutions to improve working conditions.

Key to the effort is the establishment of new union-management cooperation councils, both on the national level and for each agency component with a corresponding AFGE council. At the national level, the parties will meet six times a year and each council will be co-chaired by agency senior leaders and AFGE officials.

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents employees in SSA's Office of Hearing Operations and Office of Appellate Operations, said a key difference between the new labor-management forums and previous ones, such as those aimed at addressing issues related to the return to traditional offices, is the commitment of agency senior leaders that they will participate.

“Unlike the former union-management meetings, which were largely operated by [Office of Labor-Management and Employee Relations] staff, the [cooperation council] meetings will be jointly run and chaired by labor and management with jointly set agendas and more open sharing of information,” Couture said. “The whole idea is using pre-decisional involvement to solve issues facing employees and public service, and hopefully improve the relationship since they’ll interact and work with each other, while also avoiding, to the extent possible, obstacles inherent to traditional post-decisional and pre-implementation collective bargaining.”

Tweaks to Training

On training, which employees and union officials have complained currently consists primarily of “self-paced” training documents and webinars and leaves new employees ill-prepared for their complex workloads, the contract immediately requires management to provide adequate time to attend and complete sessions, including learning about policy changes that may be transmitted to employees via email, and adds a follow-up survey for employees to take six months after a session. Those surveys will then help the new cooperation councils develop a new training regimen that Couture said he hoped would leverage hybrid work technology to create virtual classroom learning.

“One area we’ll deal with going forward is: what does the future of training at SSA look like, particularly leveraging technology like Microsoft Teams or Zoom and trying to approximate the in-person training experience as best as possible,” he said. “[Follow] up training surveys will allow us to make continuous improvements to the program. [Under the new contract, trainees] will take two surveys—one when they first get out of a training session and another usually six months afterwards. So it’ll be good feedback for both parties so we can have an informed discussion.”

Family Benefits

Although the union was unable to secure a new child care subsidy to help employees with dependent family members, that is another issue they hope to tackle through the new labor-management councils. In the meantime, beginning in October 2024 and subject to the appropriations and procurement processes, management will offer an emergency backup care program to monitor dependents in instances where an employee cannot secure child care arrangements in an emergency.

Couture said AFGE also was able to secure temporary compassionate assignments where, if an employee incurs a personal or family-related hardship, management can grant an employee a renewable 60-day period where they can work from home full time, or if they are staying with a family member in a different region, work from that family member’s home. And the union secured new language aimed at deterring bullying in the workplace, as well as a provision ensuring that disciplinary investigations must be initiated in a timely manner.

A Jumping Off Point

Although the agreement provides a roadmap to improving relations between Social Security and AFGE, Couture said it is merely the first step.

“If this is going to be successful and actually change the relationship at the agency, it’s critical that leadership of both parties are actively working together in these meetings directly and not through an intermediary,” he said. “I think the difference this time is that management has more firmly committed to the principle that the leadership of both parties will work together directly to address both employee and public service issues.”

In a statement, Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle noted that the deal must now go through the ratification process, followed by agency head review. Couture estimated that the contract could be implemented sometime this fall.

“Social Security and AFGE recently reached an agreement in principle on the limited reopening of our 2019 SSA-AFGE national agreement, underscoring the collaboration of the negotiators for both sides,” Hinkle said. “While it would be premature for us to comment on specific provisions in the tentative agreement, Social Security has been fully committed to good faith negotiations throughout the process and we remain optimistic for a final agreement that will advance both the public interest and employee satisfaction.”