A federal union representing 42,000 employees at the Social Security Administration is urging the agency to safeguard telework for field office staff after leadership called headquarters staff back to offices this week.

While the current reentry order applies to a limited part of the workforce based in the National Capital Region, Rich Couture, council 215 president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union will be monitoring impacts for its colleagues.

“AFGE is very pleased that the commissioner is maintaining telework at current levels for the overwhelming majority of our hardworking employees nationwide, including in our field offices, hearing offices and appeals council, teleservice centers, payment centers and more,” he said in a statement to Federal Times.

“That said, our members are anxious regarding the future of telework, and that more cuts are forthcoming,” he added. “Many employees fear that agency executives and managers will make cuts to employee telework out of spite for their own telework having been reduced. AFGE will not tolerate any such actions.”

As Congress, and the White House, have put increasing pressure on agencies to get more of their employees working in-person, federal workers have bucked against reentry orders, saying in many cases, it forces a transition that feels abrupt and unsubstantiated by productivity achieved under maximum telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Social Security in particular, AFGE has said telework is one of the few ways the agency can appeal to a workforce that has been chronically underfunded and overworked.

Following the lead of many other federal agencies, the administration is calling certain employees back to headquarters offices in Woodlawn, Maryland, beginning April 7.

Depending on their specific office, workers will be reporting onsite two to four days per work week, according to Mark Hinkle, an agency spokesperson. Managerial and executive staff have been reporting on site since November, Federal Times previously reported.

“Our return to a greater onsite presence not only gives us more opportunity for collaboration, engagement, and innovation, but it also brings us into alignment with other federal agencies across government, who have been increasing their own onsite presence,” Commissioner Martin O’Malley said in a statement.

More than 6,000 employees work at the headquarters complex, a small fraction of the more than 60,000 employees employed by the agency that work on adjudicating and paying out benefits for millions of Americans each month. Many agency employees do this by interfacing directly with the public, and all but about 1,000 career employees are eligible for telework, Oren “Hank” McKnelly II, executive counselor to the commissioner, said at an October hearing.

O’Malley, who was confirmed to the seat in Dec. 18, has been aggressively pushing the agency to address long-standing human capital challenges regarding recruitment, retention and increased workloads thanks to growth in the number of Social Security recipients. His ascent to the agency also meant he inherited a three-year period of decline in overall staffing and severe morale issues made known by AFGE.

Last fiscal year, the agency obtained direct-hire authority from the Office of Personnel Management to expedite recruitment of frontline positions. The result of that was successful: Social Security hired twice as many employees per month compared to the year prior, in some months tripling its rate.

Now, whether the agency can keep those hires is the real test, Couture told Federal Times in previous interviews. Attrition has pushed out employees who seek more manageable workloads, better training and updated compensation. Further, 12% of the agency is currently eligible for early retirement. In three years, that will increase to 15%.

In the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoints survey, about 45% of employees said their unit’s telework or remote work options influenced their intent to leave the agency.

But the agency is optimistic: even with concerns about 2024 budget instability, which remain as Congress approaches its next funding deadline on March 1, overall attrition slowed last year.

And virtual trainings alongside in-person gatherings have led to higher engagement and a better sense of inclusion, managers reported in a recent management advisory.

Couture said future decisions about telework policies must “based on facts, and not on fear or politics.”

Other federal executive branch agencies have moved to increase in-office work, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Department of Education, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Transportation, Department of Justice, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Small Business Administration, Health and Human Services, the Defense Logistics Agency, Department of Interior and others.

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.

In Other News
Load More