April 22, 2020 - Commentary - Social Security Administration needs to make telework a priority even after coronavirus
On behalf of Social Security Administration employees in field offices, teleservice centers and payment centers, I want to thank Commissioner Andrew Saul for taking action to protect public health by allowing employees to work from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting March 23, our workforce has had the privilege to continue to answer questions from Social Security recipients, respond to claims and do the work of the American people from the safety of our homes.
This pandemic has made it abundantly clear the kind of work that is essential to allow our society to continue to function. That includes grocery store workers and food supply chain workers, waste management collectors and health care workers that are treating hundreds of thousands of patients each day. It also includes our colleagues at the Internal Revenue Service who are in the midst of dispersing billions of dollars in stimulus checks and Social Security employees who ensure people who rely on our services can have peace of mind in a crisis.
In doing that essential public service, Social Security employees have found that not only are they able to efficiently work from home, they can provide an even better public service in a time of increased uncertainty. Before the implementation of telework, our field office employees had a 70% response rate to claimants, a rate that has increased to 95% in our remote work world. Employees are able to avoid long commutes, save money on gas and car maintenance and are reporting a larger sense of security and satisfaction. We’ve only experienced a lag in responding to our toll-free, 800-number because telecommunications employees have not received the software necessary to answer calls and maintain the privacy of Social Security recipients.
While all of these attributes are certainly a cause for celebration, it should come as no surprise that telework is a successful program. The Social Security Administration had a telework program in place for thousands of employees from 2013-2019 that was proven to increase morale and boost productivity. However, in November 2019, Commissioner Saul rescinded telework for 12,000 employees with little to no justification. At the time, the move was criticized in Congress and deemed arbitrary and old school. Why not allow your workforce to maintain flexibility in times of possible crisis? What if there’s inclement weather, or, God forbid, a pandemic that prevents people from going to a common workplace every day?
Certainly, we don’t expect the agency to allow its employees to work from home indefinitely. There’s already been plenty of discussion on how we begin to reopen parts of the economy, go back to work and find our way back to normal. The simple fact is that we cannot go back to things as they were. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, we don’t have nearly enough resources to test everyone who might have COVID-19, contact trace those who may have infected others or isolate outbreaks. To reopen over 1,000 Social Security field offices, which experience high foot traffic as hundreds of people visit each week for face-to-face appointments with employees, would be to put the public health of our seniors who rely on Social Security at risk.
We need to find a solution that allows us to do the work of the public safely and securely, for both the public and Social Security employees. That may include allowing field offices to receive visitors by appointment only, ensuring we have a safe number of people in the waiting area at all times. We could further stagger visitation times so that field office employees could retain three days a week of telework to continue to process claims and speak to claimants over the phone in the controlled environment of their homes. We already know our customer service has improved dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we don’t anticipate the American public will be eager to wait in a packed waiting area in proximity to others.
We also propose allowing employees in our telecommunication centers to work 100% remotely. The work of our telecommunications professionals already takes place over the phone, and we saw an increase in productivity among these employees during our 2013-2019 telework program. There’s no need for hundreds of employees to be packed together like sardines in a multistory building of they’re going to be on the phone the whole time anyway.
No matter what has been said from the White House press briefing room, we aren’t going back to the way things were anytime soon. Instead of constantly catching up to the private sector, the federal government must lead on remote work. The service we provide is too important to imperil for political calculations or decisions that ignore public health recommendations. That means telework must remain a part of what we do for all employees.
Ralph de Juliis (email@example.com) is the president of AFGE Council 220, which represents employees at the Social Security Administration.