AFGE represents more than 700,000 federal and District of Columbia employees in 70 agencies, including over 45,000 employees at the Social Security Administration (SSA). Frontline workers have the knowledge and expertise on how to do their jobs and improve the processes to better serve retirees and other SSA beneficiaries.
Yet the past four years, SSA employees – and their unions who are their voice at work – have not been treated as partners in helping to make sure the American people receive the best services in a timely manner.
As the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing entitled “Social Security During COVID: How the Pandemic Hampered Access to Benefits and Strategies for Improving Service Delivery,” AFGE submitted a statement for the record detailing the issues employees have faced during the COVID-19 outbreak and our recommendations on how to improve services at SSA during the pandemic and beyond. Here are some of our recommendations:
Get employees and unions involved early on
A few months before COVID hit, SSA either severely restricted or cancelled telework for much of its workforce. It unilaterally revoked telework permission as part of the Trump administration’s larger war against federal workers. When COVID hit, the ill-conceived decision came back to haunt them. SSA went into nearly 100% telework, but the vast majority of the workforce did not have equipment or training and had little or no input into the agency’s continuation of operations plan. The chaos caused delays and hurt SSA beneficiaries.
It is important that union representatives be explicitly engaged in deliberations over decisions that affect the safety, working conditions and morale of the workforce. This is an even more important when employees and the public they serve are threatened by both a deadly virus and potential challenges to timely service delivery.
Change SSA leadership
SSA employees have withstood years of mismanagement and poor leadership under Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, and this behavior has only been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. SSA’s leaders, for example, did not communicate openly with employee representatives about a clear plan or vision for the agency amid the pandemic and did not provide any guidance on plans to return employees to the office in a safe manner.
SSA needs leaders who see the unionized workforce as a partner and not an obstacle. The agency needs leaders who view employees as the knowledgeable, professional and dedicated public servants that they are. SSA needs new leaders at the highest levels that will cooperate and collaborate with the unions representing the people who know best how to get the public’s work done. A change in leadership will improve both public service and employee engagement and empowerment.
Provide in-person services in a safe manner
SSA field offices must continue to provide in-person services because many SSA beneficiaries do not have access to the internet or telephone. It is important for SSA to return to the in-person setting as soon as it can do so safely. This requires a small number of employees in the office who can maintain safe distances.
SSA also needs to make sure it has enough frontline field office personnel to handle the backlog caused by the pandemic. Certain functions such as Medical Continuing Disability Reviews were temporarily suspended during the pandemic to avoid terminating benefits, but they have resumed. With this resumption comes a backlog of cases that must be reviewed.
Promote telework where possible
Despite the initial telework chaos at the beginning of the pandemic due to poor management decisions, within a matter of weeks, SSA reported that wait times for calls were down and the number of calls answered per employee was up. Because of telework, the agency has also been able to reduce the pre-pandemic backlog of both newly filed claims and appeals claims. In the Office of Hearings Operations, the backlog of pending hearings requests also dropped.
Overall, SSA has not only maintained vital services during the pandemic, but performance has improved and wait times have decreased for many services.
Telework should continue into the future and SSA should identify additional portable work and the technologies needed make it possible.