Short of big increases in government spending, there is one measure the largest federal employee union said can serve as a partial remedy to severe understaffing and backlogs at the Social Security Administration: increased telework.

Representatives from the American Federation of Government Employees told reporters Monday that SSA’s lack of an expanded telework or remote work program is causing the agency’s workforce, already at a 25-year low, to seek employment elsewhere.

“Simply put, other employers offer better pay benefits, telework and remote work options, upward mobility and support,” said Jessica LaPointe, president of local AFGE council 220. “Poor employee retention is causing public service to deteriorate.”

AFGE, which represents more than 40,000 SSA employees, is urging the agency to staunch attrition, which spiked over the last two years. According to data compiled by the union, resignations unrelated to retirement surged 274% from fiscal 2017 to 2022. The union said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, SSA employees worked remotely for nearly two years, so it would be a near costless solution for the agency to reinstate work flexibilities.

As of 2022, more than half of the agency’s workforce is telework eligible, according to employment data kept by the Office of Personnel Management. At the same time, Congress has looked to roll back telework flexibilities via the SHOW UP Act and blamed such policies for long wait times at Social Security and other agencies.

While 2.1 million federal employees await OPM’s response to Republicans’ challenge come the ending of the national pandemic emergency next month, workforce advocates are assuring leadership that telework has improved productivity, morale and recruitment.

SSA learned during the pandemic already that much of its non-public facing workload is portable, said Sherry Jackson, Council 220 second vice president. In a survey conducted by the union and Cooley Public Strategies, 91% of employees surveyed said they were “much more” efficient and productive while teleworking.

However, Jackson said, the agency has failed to expand telework and make it permanent where it increases efficiency.

The White House is seeking nearly $15.5 billion for SSA in fiscal 2024. AFGE says to account for inflation and restore staffing, the agency actually needs $17.5 billion.

Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi said in a budget document that new hires accounted for by the funding request will reduce Social Security paperwork backlogs and improve service to the public.

However, Rich Couture, Council 215 president, said the agency cannot just hire itself out of crisis.

“We are not seeing significant success in hiring even with the use of looser hiring rules granted by the Office of Personnel Management,” he told reporters April 10. “Even if SSA could hire all the new claims specialists, customer service representatives, legal assistants and other necessary support staff positions immediately, those new hires would need months of training, and two to three years of on the job experience and mentoring to become fully proficient and productive.”

Couture also said he has not seen SSA make any moves to bolster its HR core to handle the influx of new hires it hopes for.

As AFGE looks ahead to the upcoming budget cycle, it’s also preparing to renegotiate six articles of its national contract agreement in the coming weeks.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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