Social Security Commissioner Martin O'Malley updated policies to return headquarters, regional office and area director office personnel to in-person work this spring.

Social Security Commissioner Martin O'Malley updated policies to return headquarters, regional office and area director office personnel to in-person work this spring. Tom Williams / Getty Images

O’Malley reduces telework for Social Security HQ, regional office staff

The new commissioner outlined a plan to create “core collaboration days” for members of management, while most frontline workers are seemingly spared from the cuts.

Social Security Commissioner Martin O’Malley announced Tuesday that beginning this spring, employees at the agency’s headquarters, regional offices and area director offices will be expected to show up for in-person work more frequently, as the new leader seeks to get a handle on operations.

According to a memo sent to staff, beginning April 7, headquarters, regional office and area director office employees will be expected to work in-person three days per week. Staff in the commissioner’s office will report onsite four days per week, while employees in the Office of the Chief Information Officer will report in-person twice per week.

The move is part of O’Malley’s plan to create a culture around “core collaboration days” among agency policymakers. The commissioner, whom the Senate confirmed to his post last December, said he had spent his first month on the job either working in-person at the agency’s headquarters in Baltimore or traveling to regional and field offices across the country.

“Our return to a greater onsite presence not only gives us more opportunity for collaboration, engagement and innovation, but it also brings us into alignment with other federal agencies across government, who have been increasing their own onsite presence,” O’Malley wrote. “[As] we improve the quality of our data to measure our effectiveness across the complex components of the agency, we will continue to adjust in order to reach the best possible balance within individual units.”

Not changing, at least for the time being, are the telework schedules of frontline workers in the agency’s many field offices, teleservice and payment centers, hearing offices and or in the Office of Appellate Operations. Currently, field office employees may telework two days per week. 

In the hearing offices, decision writers can remain on telework five days per week while most support staff spend three or four days a week teleworking. Within the Office of Appellate Operations, most staff may work up to five days a week while on telework.

That’s a relief to Rich Couture, chief negotiator for the American Federation of Government Employees with SSA management and the president of AFGE Council 215, which represents Office of Hearing Operations employees.

Though the union is still seeking information on how bargaining unit employees at headquarters and the regional offices will be impacted, he said the vast majority were held harmless by Tuesday’s announcement. In a statement Thursday, SSA said that roughly 4,000 bargaining unit employees would be affected by the move, though that is roughly 9% of the 44,000 agency workers represented by AFGE.

“AFGE is pleased to see [O’Malley] is maintaining telework at current levels, and it’s clear that the commissioner recognizes the importance of telework for workers and their work-life balance, as well as its importance for retention and recruitment efforts,” Couture said. “We’re still in a public service crisis fueled by understaffing and attrition, and one way to maintain staffing levels is by offering telework. A commitment to continuing current telework levels for those employees is critical to keeping the agency’s ability to serve the public intact by keeping our employees working here.”

Couture acknowledged widespread concern among his members in the wake of the announcement that future changes reducing telework for frontline workers could be on the horizon. And he said O’Malley’s comment that field offices would “remain open to the public five days a week” was disappointing, given the union’s efforts to restore an old practice by which field offices would shutter for a half or full day per week so that employees could catch up on non-public facing duties.

“It’s going to be very important going forward that [management] works with, in particular, AFGE Council 220, [which represents field office workers], to find new ways to address these concerns and enable field office employees to get on top of those backlogs,” Couture said. “It’s now incumbent on the agency to work with Council 220 to find other options and flexibilities to better enable employees to stay on top of their work and get some relief from the crushing workloads and unrealistic productivity expectations.”

But Couture was encouraged by what he saw as an indication that O’Malley would make any future decision based on operational needs, not political pressure from congressional Republicans, who in recent months have sought to blame agency service backlogs that cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace flexibility.

“These decisions will honor both the letter and the spirit of our union agreements,” O’Malley wrote. “And these decisions will be based on the mission of SSA using the best possible evidence, not fear.”