February 20, 2024
Hundreds of AFGE leaders and activists gathered in Washington, D.C. last week for the union’s annual legislative conference.
The pandemic has shown that a lot of work is portable and can be done remotely. Telework not only allows agencies to continue their missions uninterrupted but also cuts down commute times, greenhouse gas emissions, fuel costs, and overall stress. It serves as an effective recruitment and retention tool as more and more companies are offering this workplace flexibility. Remote work, where work is fully portable, saves the taxpayer money on things like office space, rent, and utilities.
Telework also makes it possible for people with disabilities and caregivers to work and support themselves and their families. In fact, employment of people with disabilities has gone up because work is now done from home. According to Nicole Maestas, associate professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, employer accommodations with telework and remote work facilitates employees with disabilities, and Social Security Disability beneficiaries are going off benefits due to this workplace flexibility.
These facts don’t change even though the government has ended the public health emergency period last month. But why are we hearing politicians complaining about telework?
That’s because they are barking up the wrong tree when they complain about not having enough people at public-facing facilities. It’s not a secret that these agencies have been short-staffed due to years of budget cuts, inability to stop high turnovers due to poor working conditions, low pay (lagging behind the private sector by nearly 24%), and inability to attract job applicants.
That’s what’s going on at the Social Security Administration (SSA).
SSA is in a recruitment and retention crisis. The agency hit its lowest staffing levels in 25 years at the end of September 2022. AFGE flash surveys as of March 2023 show 53% are considering leaving the agency in the next year.
“SSA job applicants and current SSA employees want this flexible workplace benefit because it saves them money, increases productivity, work life balance, overall quality of life, and job satisfaction. Other employers are offering more telework and remote work,” said AFGE Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe. “We think SSA will need to increase telework and remote work access in order to be able to recruit the next generation and retain its current workforce.”
Telework also serves as a tool to retain current employees. It’s easier to try to keep current workers as it takes time to hire people and it takes months or even years to get new hires up to speed due to complexity of cases.
The agency has an opportunity to leverage telework to increase its staffing without additional cost for brick-and-mortar space. It could keep all its existing field offices open for the public while potentially doubling the staff in each office. The increase in staffing would improve public service and reduce backlogs. It would relieve some pressure points that are currently present with one employee being expected to do the work of ten.
“The agency's dinosaur approach to public service no longer works,” said Angela Digeronimo, a regional vice president for Council 220 and its telework subject matter expert. “This approach has created the recruitment and retention crisis it finds itself in. This crisis is not just an employee problem, it is a general public crisis.”
The council also points to other benefits of telework especially during severe weather. In March last year, Social Security Field Offices returned to in-office operations with a two-day per week telework program. As a result, field office employees who participate in the telework program continue to work when their offices are closed due to severe weather or other adverse health and safety conditions.
In Upstate New York alone, there have been 11 days of severe weather that resulted in full-day office closures since March 2022. If these workers were not able to telework, SSA and the public it served would have lost upwards of 10,000 hours of productivity.
In addition, there is a savings of approximately $341,000 in weather and safety leave that would have been paid to employees had telework not been available.
Prior to SSA implementing any sort of wide-scale telework trial, SSA was obligated to pay weather and safety leave to employees who were scheduled to work in the office during severe weather closures. As a result, there were often days where entire field offices were unable to produce work because of these closures. Even when offices did not close, the public was often underserved in severe weather events because of mass transit disruptions and closures of other community services.
“Telework has allowed field offices to boost customer service in situations where the public would not have been served otherwise,” LaPointe added.
The council has been trying to get SSA to expand its telework program. It has proposed a 10-year study on how telework affects the agency’s mission and workforce using varying telework schedules, but SSA has not responded so far.
Rally to save SSA
SSA is now ranked dead last amongst large federal agencies in the most recent best places to work survey.
To save their own agency, SSA employees are planning a rally on Wednesday, June 21 to spotlight staffing crisis and working conditions at SSA. The rally will take place at noon at the U.S. Capitol Grounds at the corner of Independence Ave. SE and First St. SE. Participants are encouraged to wear red.
AFGE members braved the cold last week to call on Congress to fully fund the government and give them the 7.4% raise they deserve.
We are happy to announce that Joshua McCue from Fort Walker is AFGE’s Firefighter of the Year!