December 09, 2019

Cardin, Senators Defend Social Security Workers, Urge Reversal of Abrupt Cancellation of Telework

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) Monday led 33 colleagues in a letter to Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul questioning the recent unilateral decision to cancel telework for 12,000 employees of the Social Security Administration (SSA). After seven years of telework at SSA, which SSA’s own Inspector General determined has increased productivity, workers were initially given only two weeks to rework commutes, childcare, and other arrangements. SSA pushed the deadline back to November 23, but this was still not enough time. This change in policy caught employees and their unions completely by surprise – there was no prior consultation, nor any notification.

“In your November 4, 2019 ‘Open Letter to the Public,’ you talk about improving SSA’s ‘public facing services,’ which is commendable. We recognize that an issue of this gravity demands a response and we stand ready to help.  We fear, however, that abruptly ending telework threatens to make the problem worse, not better.  We fear it will harm productivity by demoralizing employees who must scramble to make alternate childcare and other arrangements, encouraging early retirements, and undermining efforts to recruit promising new workers,” the senators wrote.

In addition to Cardin, the letter is signed by Senators Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Gary C. Peters (D-Ind.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), Margaret Wood Hassan (D-N.H.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).    

“We respectfully request that you reconsider your decision to terminate the telework program … You affirmed your commitment to working as an independent and nonpartisan leader of SSA, maintaining positive and fair relations with your employees, and bargaining in good faith with unions.  We hope you will stand by your commitment, provide an explanation for your reasoning and evidence for making this change in policy, and reconsider your decision.”

The full letter is below and can be downloaded here.

December 9, 2019

Mr. Andrew Saul
Commissioner
Social Security Administration
6401 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21235

Dear Commissioner Saul:

We are writing to express our disappointment regarding your decision to end the telework program for nearly 12,000 employees in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operations components.  We are concerned that this move represents an unwarranted break with existing policy and contradicts the assurances you made in response to our July 23, 2019 letter in which you expressed your willingness to work with SSA employees and their unions in a collaborative fashion to improve public service.  We respectfully request that you reconsider this change in policy.

We understand that SSA’s new contract with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has just come into effect, and that this contract conferred some degree of discretion to SSA management to set new rules for teleworking.  We do not believe, however, that this justifies management’s unilateral decision to rescind telework entirely for the 12,000 affected employees.  AFGE had no prior notice of this decision.  Furthermore, we are concerned that SSA is not providing sufficient time for workers to alter their arrangements to account for this policy change.

Roughly 70 million Americans receive some sort of Social Security benefit.  Among numerous other challenges, SSA faces a persistent case backlog that affects the delivery of these vital benefits to our constituents.  In your November 4, 2019 “Open Letter to the Public,” you talk about improving SSA’s “public facing services,” which is commendable.  We recognize that an issue of this gravity demands a response and we stand ready to help.  We fear, however, that abruptly ending telework threatens to make the problem worse, not better.  We fear it will harm productivity by demoralizing employees who must scramble to make alternate childcare and other arrangements, encouraging early retirements, and undermining efforts to recruit promising new workers.  SSA’s national 800 number is a crucial “public facing service”.  As Government Executive recently reported, the SSA’s own Inspector General (IG) determined that “telework actually improved productivity for employees at teleservice centers, which administer the 800 number … teleworkers took an average of four additional calls per day than non-teleworkers, resolved those calls more quickly than employees in the office and spent an additional half hour each day helping customers.”[1]   

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to provide annual reports to Congress on Federal telework programs.  In its most recent report for Fiscal Year 2017, OPM states that most Federal employees feel that telework improves their productivity, performance, and morale.  Even more telling, 53 percent of supervisors agreed with the sentiment that telework improves their employees’ ability to perform their work; only 15 percent disagreed.

In Fiscal Year 2017, SSA estimated that it had saved $900,000 on rental costs through its telework program.  Other agencies also reported savings in transit subsidy costs, utility costs, and office supplies.  Given this information and the IG’s findings noted above, we are interested in seeing any evidence you may have that indicates that eliminating telework will increase agency productivity and efficiency.

We respectfully request that you reconsider your decision to terminate the telework program.  We also ask that you respond to the following questions as soon as possible:

  1. What cost-benefit analysis led SSA to conclude that eliminating telework would result in improved performance?  Please share the specific results of any analysis, such as lost investment in telework infrastructure, new requirements for additional office space and physical resources, and staff attrition.
  2. How did SSA determine that 20 work days would be sufficient notice for employees to make new arrangements for commuting, childcare and/or eldercare, etc.?
  3. As per the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement between SSA and AFGE, employees should have continued access to telework.  Is SSA’s decision to eliminate telework contrary to the collective bargaining agreement?   Do any supervisors and managers telework?  If so, will they still have access to the telework program?
  4. How much notice did SSA provide AFGE before the announcement on telework?  What opportunity did AFGE members or other SSA staff have to consult with agency leadership about the decision?

You affirmed your commitment to working as an independent and nonpartisan leader of SSA, maintaining positive and fair relations with your employees, and bargaining in good faith with unions.  We hope you will stand by your commitment, provide an explanation for your reasoning and evidence for making this change in policy, and reconsider your decision.

Sincerely,

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[1] Eric Wagner. Government Executive, “Social Security’s Justification for Ending Telework Pilot Doesn’t Add Up.” November 7, 2019. www.govexec.com/management/2019/11/social-securitys-justification-ending-telework-doesnt-add/161167/