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Social Security Administration announces further changes to telework program

The Social Security Administration announced that it will make further changes to the Woodlawn-based agency’s telework program, months after ending a pilot program that allowed some 12,000 employees to work from home one or two days a week.

Agency spokesman Mark Hinkle wrote in an email that the agency notified employees Monday “about changes in the telework program,” which still allowed certain employees to work from home a few days a week.

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“The agency is making changes to telework because public service comes first,” Hinkle said in an emailed statement. “Each Deputy Commissioner was responsible for determining what employee positions are eligible to telework and the number of permitted telework days.”

Hinkle did not answer questions about what employees were affected or how many, but he said the changes will go into effect March 2.

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, said the latest telework cuts are hitting only a few departments, mostly based in Baltimore, like the Office of Hearings and Operations, Quality Review and some national hearing and assistance centers. The American Federation of Government Employees’ local union, which represents hearings and appeals workers at Social Security, is upset about how the administration notified employees of the change.

“We are communicating the specifics directly with our employees and our unions,” Hinkle said in an email. “Union representatives are invited to these discussions. Telework eligibility and frequency may vary depending on organizational deliverables as we work to improve service. This applies in components across the agency.”

Most of the workers impacted, Couture said, are employees who have done telework for the past two decades and not those included in a 2013 pilot program that expanded telework eligibility. Social Security announced last year that it was ending the pilot program, saying it would make customer service more timely and effective.

Couture said he was notified about the new telework cuts at 12:15 p.m., just 45 minutes before employee meetings were slated to begin with supervisors to inform them about the adjustments. The union president said the delay in notifying the organization didn’t allow union representatives to be in the meetings and he believes it was “deliberate” because of the agency’s “disdain for the union.”

“The union is entitled to reasonable advance notice of formal meetings concerning conditions of employment, to afford the union an opportunity to be present and participate at these meetings,” Couture said. “We were deprived of our ability to prepare representatives to fully participate in these meetings, ask relevant questions, and advise employees.”

Couture said he spent the day talking with employees before finally hearing from the agency and confirming the changes.

The union president said the telework adjustments will affect legal assistants in the administration’s Office of Hearings and Operations, who were cut from three telework days to one day per two-week pay period. Systems staff in that office also were rendered ineligible. The Office of Quality Review also received a one-day-across-the-board cut, and its systems staff will be ineligible, he said.

The Social Security Administration has not given any specific reason for the changes in telework, Couture said, aside from it gives managers flexibility to handle workloads.

“They’re not watching TV. They’re working. This work is tracked,” said Couture, adding that he’s “not heard of anybody who has lost their telework eligibility” because of performance concerns.

When Social Security ended the popular telework pilot program last year, Maryland Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin publicly criticized, saying it was an abrupt decision that could affect the agency’s ability to recruit new employees. Social Security employs roughly 11,000 people in Maryland, according to data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Many of them are at its headquarters in Woodlawn.

“In December, Congress instructed the Social Security Administration to reverse its abrupt decision to cancel telework for nearly 12,000 employees,” Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky wrote in an email this week. “Senator Cardin has heard that SSA will soon comply with those instructions, although details are sparse.

“He will continue to monitor the situation and stay in touch with employees and their union representatives to see if SSA leadership truly is following Congressional intent and supporting a program that the SSA’s own Inspector General determined increases productivity among workers.”

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Monday’s announcement also concerned Van Hollen, who said he believes this will create more confusion.

“In an independent study, telework was proven to increase productivity at SSA, and it is valued by many of our hard-working federal employees,” Van Hollen said in an email. “I urge SSA to immediately issue a clear policy that supports telework and helps their employees better serve the American people.”

Couture said those affected by the changes will have until Feb. 7 to reapply for telework; otherwise it will be considered forfeit.

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