As President Biden marked 100 days in office this past week, we were encouraged by the leaps and bounds taken to support federal employees and root out the past wrongs of the Trump administration. This includes the establishment of the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history, the firing of anti-employee, anti-union zealots at the Federal Service Impasses Panel, and the appointment of an acting General Counsel at the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
Yet one thorn remains in the side of tens of thousands of employees at the Social Security Administration. Acting Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black — both appointed by President Trump, it appears, to undermine the Social Security Administration from within — remain in charge of one of the most important safety net programs in the country. Under Mr. Saul and Mr. Black, hundreds of thousands of SSI and disability claims have gone unanswered, stimulus checks were delayed to the elderly and disabled, employees were forced to accept the worst agency-employee contract in the 21st century, and a popular telework program was arbitrarily yanked, only to be reinstated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a hearing before the United States Senate Committee on Finance last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Social Security Subcommittee chair, said, “We must acknowledge how difficult an SSI application is, you basically need to have a law degree to successfully apply, here’s what I’ve observed of this: the Social Security Administration under Commissioner Saul spent a lot of time and regulatory energy making it harder for people to qualify for and retain these benefits, and he’s continued that even after the switch over in the White House.”
It is clear that in order to protect and expand Social Security and fully support its beneficiaries, Mr. Saul and Mr. Black must go. They were appointed for purely political purposes and act on those political agendas to actively undermine the sitting president and the agency nominally in their care. Senator Brown continued in his questioning at the April 29 Finance Committee hearing, “We need leadership that believes in the promise of Social Security, not leadership that has actively worked to dismantle it. Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black should resign.”
Every disappointing facet of SSA, from the services received (or denied, more often under Mr. Saul), to the experience of employees, to the refusal to bargain in good faith and reopen the 2019 agency-employee contract, is due to Mr. Saul and Mr. Black’s continued tenure. If President Biden truly is invested in rebuilding and restoring Social Security for millions of Americans who rely on it, and is genuinely invested in the well-being of the tens of thousands of Social Security employees who wake up every day to serve the public, he must fire Mr. Saul and Mr. Black and replace them with public servants dedicated to his vision.
We must never take for granted the system of democracy we rely on in the United States that allows us to call to question leaders like Mr. Saul and Mr. Black. The world watched in horror as its oldest democracy faced a violent insurrection on Jan. 6, encouraged and facilitated by President Trump and his supporters, that led to the deaths of five people, including a Capitol police officer, and put the lives of our vice president, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, and Members of Congress in jeopardy. Anyone affiliated with the Trump administration who did not vehemently and loudly oppose this threat to American democracy should not hold power in any form in the United States of America. That includes Trump political appointees such as Mr. Saul and Mr. Black, who remained uncomfortably silent in the aftermath of this tragic event.
President Biden has a decades-long track record of standing up for American workers and federal employees. We are glad to see the first steps taken by the Biden administration to invest in the federal workforce and improve the services we provide to millions of Americans, but more is needed. As we are poised to see the largest investment in Social Security since its inception, acting Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black are poor stewards of this vital social safety net program. Biden must fire these political holdovers and appoint true leaders who are fully committed to building back a better SSA.
Ralph de Juliis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is spokesperson of the AFGE-SSA General Committee, which represents over 46,000 SSA employees in the AFGE bargaining unit in hearings offices, headquarters, payment service centers, office of quality review and the data operation center. He is also president of AFGE Council 220, which represents over 26,000 SSA employees in field offices and teleservice centers nationwide.