Maryland’s U.S. senators and union officials say they’re urging the Social Security Administration to reconsider the cancellation of a popular telework program for employees of the Woodlawn-based agency.
Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, were among a group of senators who wrote this month to Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul to “express our disappointment” with the decision. Some 12,000 employees across the country took part in the telework program for Social Security operations, which oversees field offices and a national customer service line.
Under the pilot program, which began in late 2013, employees could work one or two days a week from home. They included claims specialists, benefit authorizers and telephone customer service representatives.
The lawmakers said “abruptly ending telework" would harm productivity by demoralizing staff and making it harder to recruit. And they said the administration gave no notice to the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing Social Security employees.
In a statement , Van Hollen said he would “continue working to push back against this misguided decision and to stand up for the civil servants who work every day on behalf of the American people.”
“I support work-life balance for SSA employees consistent with meeting our first obligation: to serve the public,” Saul wrote. “A time of workload crisis is not the time to experiment with working at home, especially for the more than 40,000 employees who staff our public facing offices.”
Social Security spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said in an email that Saul was concerned that the “pilot did not have in place appropriate controls or identified data points on which we could reliably collect data.”
“With proper measures in place to evaluate employee performance and the impact on public service, telework will be reevaluated,” she said.
About 25% of operations employees participated in the program, she said.
Rich Couture, a spokesman for an AFGE committee representing Social Security employees, said the administration hasn’t presented evidence to support the decision.
“We dispute the characterization is an experiment because (the program) was going on for six years,” Couture said, adding that managers already had flexibility to suspend telework temporarily if needed for staffing levels.
The decision to end the telework program came after a new contract went into effect for AFGE employees, following contentious negotiations and an impasse.
Telework proponents say it makes employees more efficient by reducing time spent in traffic and eliminating the distractions of an office setting. Telework remains available for Social Security employees in other divisions, including those who work in hearings and appeals.
Working from home provides flexibility when it comes to transporting children to and from school or daycare, but Couture said employees weren’t watching their kids during work hours.
“Our employees do not take care of dependents while they are teleworking," he said.
Beverly Parks, president of AFGE Local 2006 in Philadelphia, said the union repeatedly pressed Social Security for data on teleworking for several years, but the agency never shared any.
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At first, agency officials said they weren’t collecting data, said Parks, who represented the union in a Social Security workgroup focused on the pilot program. Later, the agency told the union an outside company had collected information, but “they said they couldn’t interpret it.”
Parks contends the agency hasn’t given “a legitimate business reason” for the program’s end.
In the Social Security payment centers, she said, “we don’t have face-to-face contact with the public."
“Morale is so low" after the decision, she said. “And the way it was canceled created so much chaos,” including a parking shortage at the Philadelphia office.
A 2017 report by the agency’s inspector general found that teleworking field offices “did not perform quite as well" as those who didn’t. But employees who worked from home answering calls to the agency’s toll free phone line “performed slightly better” than those who didn’t.