Social Security workers to return to offices possibly by the end of March

Michael Vi / iStock.com

The Social Security Administration reached agreements with all of its unions on reentry that unions hope will lead to a more collaborative relationship moving forward.

The Social Security Administration announced Wednesday that it had reached agreements with all of its federal employee unions to begin bringing workers back to agency worksites with a target date of March 30, after making several key concessions to labor groups.

Acting Social Security Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi lauded the deal in a statement posted on the agency’s website.

“I am very pleased to share that we have successfully reached agreement with our three labor unions on our reentry plan,” she said. “This will be a significant step toward improving access to our services as we implement this plan. I want to thank our labor representatives for working with management to achieve this outcome, which will help us better serve the public.”

According to an agreement reached between the Social Security Administration and the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers across several of the agency’s subcomponents, the current target date for employees to return to the office is March 30, although that date can be postponed if there is another spike in COVID-19 cases.

The deal also provides AFGE’s various component-level councils and locals the opportunity to bargain over reentry issues specific to their offices between now and March 1, something the union has been pushing for since last year. And it sets up a framework for the union and management to continue to negotiate for six months after reentry begins over operational and personnel policies, including over issues like post-pandemic telework.

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents employees in the Office of Hearing Operations, and chief negotiator for the union on reentry, said the agreement will ensure that Social Security can better meet its customers’ needs, while ensuring both employees and members of the public remain safe from COVID-19.

“I’m happy with this agreement because it’s going to save lives, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Couture said. “We’ve seen how pervasive the Omicron and Delta variants have been in this country, particularly in recent weeks, and pushing out the reentry date to the end of March gives everybody the opportunity to wait out the wave, which will hopefully subside, and plan accordingly . . . The second key is that it’s critically important that we’re able to, as components and union councils, engage component-specific reentry issues prior to reentry. There’s a lot of work we still need to do at that level.”

Before this week, the agency had continued to insist that all bargaining over reentry should occur only at the national level, to which the unions had objected because of the widely varying functions and conditions across the agency’s various components. On January 7, Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md. and Robert Casey, D-Pa., sent a letter to Kijakazi encouraging her to take an “active role in rebuilding” labor-management relations, particularly over reentry negotiations.

“Thoughtful, safe reopening can begin without threatening the health, safety or morale of the workforce,” they wrote. “We urge you to work with the unions and their subagency components to ensure that the work of SSA is carried out while continuing to provide telework and proper cleaning and distancing practices.”

Although the agency is currently set to return to offices by the end of March, the Association of Administrative Law Judges said that in-person hearings likely will not begin until later in the spring, due to federal regulations requiring the agency to give claimants 75 days' notice of a hearing date. AALJ President Som Ramrup said her union’s agreement with management allows judges to continue to hold virtual hearings if claimants prefer, and bars the agency from scheduling in-person and virtual hearings for a judge on the same day.

“[The 75-day notice period] is really for [claimants’] benefit, in case they need to get medical records together or line up witnesses,” Ramrup said. “Because of that 75-day rule, and the fact that schedulers are already working on April calendars right now, the scheduling unit of the agency needs sufficient time to schedule in-person hearings on top of the regulations requiring advanced notice. Some of it depends on the agency, but right now, we’re probably looking at around May.”

Ramrup said it was important for her union to ensure, for judges, staff and the public’s benefit, that video and teleconference options remain available after the agency begins returning to traditional worksites.

"We’ve adjudicated literally hundreds of thousands of cases during the pandemic, and we understand that some claimants would prefer to appear in person,” she said. “This memorandum of understanding gives them the opportunity to do just that . . . But its unclear I think, at this point, how many folks are actually going to prefer in-person hearings vs. by video or telephone. The judges and staff aren’t the only ones with trepidation about going into the office.”

The agreement with AFGE also eliminates some pre-pandemic barriers to telework instituted under a Federal Service Impasses Panel-mandated contract during the Trump administration, including so-called "core days" in which every employee was expected to report to the office, and the use of minor reprimands to bar employees from working from home altogether.

And it provides employees with the option to continue maximum telework in cases where their dependents' school or child care center is closed due to COVID-19, or if children are locked into virtual learning for the remainder of the academic year. It also allows employees to request reasonable accommodations to continue working over pre-pandemic telework limits, and allows employees to do so while those requests are pending.

Couture said that he’s hopeful the reentry agreement will mark the start of a new, more collaborative, relationship between the union and the Social Security Administration, which has been frosty dating back even before the Trump administration.

“I hope that this agreement, and the subsequent component council meetings, will reflect a turning point in the relationship between SSA and AFGE, and between the components and the [union] councils,” he said. “If we approach this with a sincere resolve to cooperatively and substantively address and resolve component-level issues, my hope is success will beget further success and that over time it will lead to the overall relationship improving.”

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