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Maryland's Senators are asking the Social Security Administration to restore a telework program used by 12,000 employees across the country.
Maryland's Senators are asking the Social Security Administration to restore a telework program used by 12,000 employees across the country. (Baltimore Sun)

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.

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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.”

“The Trump Administration’s decision to abruptly cancel Social Security workers’ ability to telework — without consultation or explanation — is deeply concerning," Van Hollen said.

At the end of October, agency officials said the program would end Nov. 8 but later changed the end date to Nov. 22.

Social Security officials say they made the move to make customer service more timely and accurate. In an “open letter to the public" last month, Commissioner Andrew Saul said the agency must dramatically improve on that front, citing wait times and other issues.

“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.

“I think there is a serious skepticism about the value of federal employees with this administration, sadly," Couture said.

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Social Security employs roughly 11,000 people in Maryland, according to data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

For years, the federal government encouraged teleworking. The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act required agencies to write policies on working from home.

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.

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.

“SSA stated its data did not definitively support a conclusion that telework affected public service,” the report says.

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