Tense negotiations between the Social Security Administration and the Association of Administrative Law Judges caught the attention of Congress July 23, as the entire caucus of democratic senators sent a letter to the agency demanding good faith negotiations with the union.

“We are writing to express our dismay that the Social Security Administration refuses to bargain in good faith with union representatives. When your nomination was before the Senate, you committed to working transparently and in good faith with the unions representing workers at SSA. Now, you have an opportunity and responsibility to honor that commitment,” the senators wrote in the letter, which was released July 26.

“SSA already filed for impasse on its contracts with the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union as it insists on imposing anti-union and anti-worker policies. In light of SSA’s request that the Federal Service Impasses Panel resolve its contract dispute with a branch of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, we urge your agency to end its unilateralism and return to the bargaining table.”

The FSIP has already ruled on an SSA impasse with AFGE, granting the agency significant authority over telework, reducing the availability of official time and locking the union into a seven-year contract.

Judge Melissa McIntosh, president of the AALJ, said in early July that the agency is looking to get a similar ruling for its contract with her union.

“It is apparent that SSA’s conduct on this matter constitutes a deliberate attempt to reach an impasse,” the senators wrote.

“SSA has sought to eliminate references to the Administrative Procedures Act, which ensures the judicial independence of administrative law judges, while also attempting to eliminate references to their judicial function. Given the nature and importance of disability claims, it is essential that the American public can rely on decisions that are fair and rational, free from any interference.”

According to the letter, the substance of the agency’s proposals in its negotiation with AALJ are similar to those outlined in three executive orders signed by President Donald Trump in May 2018. Although those orders were ruled by a District Court judge to have violated congressional intent outlined in U.S. Code, an appeals court determined in mid-July that the first court did not have the authority to override the orders.

That ruling does not negate the possibility that the executive orders violate federal statute, but agencies must now take the issue up with the Federal Labor Relations Authority before bringing it to the courts.

But the Senators have called for SSA leadership to explain whether the White House or any other entity advised SSA on its contract proposal and why there is a need to set the contract for seven years, require unions to submit unfair labor practices with the agency before the FLRA, add new requirements to union information requests, place telework at the sole discretion of the agency and limit grievance filing.

“We urge SSA to return to the bargaining table with IFPTE immediately and negotiate in good faith. It must abandon its insistence on retrograde anti-union and anti-worker policies. We request immediate updates on the agency’s next steps,” the senators wrote.

Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.

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