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Op-Ed: Morale low at Social Security Administration amid Trump administration changes

Employees with the Social Security Administration want to see a popular telecommuting program brought back.
Employees with the Social Security Administration want to see a popular telecommuting program brought back. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

To the average American, the daily news cycle regarding the Trump administration is like watching a hurricane make landfall. Each day, people wake up to the news of allegations of corruption, impeachment and ongoing scandals that create lucrative ratings for cable television.

What the stories miss are the predicaments of the federal employees who have been left behind to deal with the wreckage.

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While the president has blustered and obfuscated through his first term, Trump-appointed Cabinet officials have waged a war on the federal workforce that has undermined our productivity, driven down morale and villainized the very employees who show up every day to serve the American people. Already, the Trump administration has rolled back key safety regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency and relocated the Bureau of Land Management headquarters across the country, turning the lives of thousands of workers upside down. Until just recently, the Office of Personnel Management faced the threat of elimination.

Now under threat is the Social Security Administration thanks to administration decisions that will ultimately harm employees and drive up wait times for Social Security recipients under the guise of good public relations. Social Security Administrator Commissioner Andrew Saul announced that the agency would extend office hours to the public on Wednesday afternoons in more than 1,100 field offices around the country. He followed this announcement with a promise to hire 1,100 new employees, claiming that the new hires would directly impact the efficacy of our field offices.

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But this fallacy falls apart when one takes a closer look. Only a fraction of those new hires will go toward telecommunications centers, and none to the field offices, which are already severely understaffed. On top of that, the Social Security Administration has experienced a yearly attrition rate of nearly 4,000 employees over the past four years, meaning the hiring numbers that are promised aren’t exactly what they seem. The most insidious part of Commissioner Saul’s announcement is the fact that he has placed a hiring freeze on the agency, which is still in effect, preventing the agency from replacing the workforce we’ve lost to the private sector, retirement or other opportunities.

Our field offices had coped with this staff shortage by setting aside time on Wednesday afternoons for employees to address and finish open claims. By opening up these hours to the public, employees will be inundated by new cases, increasing the backlog and elongating wait times for the American public. While Commissioner Saul takes a victory lap, public servants around the country only see their workload increasing. The result is worker morale plummeting by the day.

This isn’t the first time employees have been harmed by shortsighted decisions under Commissioner Saul. This fall, our employees were forced to accept the harshest employee contract in the agency’s 40-year history under the threat of President Donald Trump’s draconian executive orders. On day one of our new contract, Social Security Administration leadership announced the rollback of a widely popular telework program that had proven to increase productivity and improve the retention of over 12,000 employees.

This decision has created a firestorm of criticism against the agency’s decision. Already both leaders in the House and Senate have sent letters to Commissioner Saul demanding an explanation for this arbitrary and harmful decision. When Congress passed the latest spending bill, they included language urging Commissioner Saul to reinstate telework for operations employees “as quickly as practicable.” Yet, all this is not enough.

Throughout the past year, the Trump administration has gone after federal employees and attempted to slash and burn each agency from the inside. And yet as we closed out the year, they also supported paid family leave, surprising most federal employees. As one Social Security claims specialist put it, “Trump put a cherry and icing on the cake. The cake is still burnt.”

Social Security employees deserve a leadership that understands the issues we face and is dedicated to our mission to provide the best possible service to the American people. That leadership doesn’t exist in Commissioner Saul. That’s why we call on Congress to hold hearings on the agency under Commissioner Saul’s tenure, reopen our contract, and bring the Social Security Administration back to the bargaining table.

Ralph de Juliis is the President of AFGE Council 220, which oversees Social Security employees in telecommunication centers and field offices around the country.

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