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Return to Office? How About Never, Social Security Union Says

  May 8, 2020 | By Louis C. LaBrecque, Bloomberg Law

Telework at the Social Security Administration is boosting call center answer rates and otherwise improving customer service, the leader of a union that represents about 25,000 field office and call center workers says.

The agency should allow employees to continue teleworking to the maximum extent possible even after the Covid-19 pandemic abates, said Ralph de Juliis, president of Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees. The union is asking the agency to consider a plan that would allow the SSA to close most of its 1,300 field offices in the U.S. and save hundreds of millions of dollars on facility costs, he said. Though the agency has clashed with its unions in the past over telework, de Juliis said he’s hopeful agency officials are seeing the benefits now that most employees are working from home.

“If they want to go that way, they have the union’s support,” he said.

Call answer rates since the SSA began allowing most of its more than 55,000 employees to telework—including the field office and call center employees—are up from about 70% to about 95%, and employees for the first time in many years can schedule next-day phone appointments for many agency customers, he said. The agency has been able to safeguard customers’ sensitive personal information by using virtual private networks to encrypt communications, de Juliis said.

The agency told the union on Thursday, in response to a request for bargaining over a list of Covid-19 issues sent to the SSA on May 1, that it’s too early to make decisions about reopening offices, de Juliis said, adding that SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul hasn’t responded to an April 24 letter from the union outlining the plan to move to maximum telework on a permanent basis.

The Social Security Administration didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on whether it would consider permanently moving to maximum telework or on service improvements that the union said had occurred during the first five weeks of nearly 100% telework.

During the five weeks before the pandemic caused most agency employees to work from home, 444,494 callers got through to an SSA employee, and 77,248 callers didn’t get through to an employee, the union said. During the first five weeks of maximum telework, 555,267 callers got through to an SSA employee and 47,581 callers didn’t get through to an employee, the council said.

‘Not a Perfect Match’
A professional group that represents attorneys and other advocates for Social Security recipients said the agency must maintain a strong physical presence for people who depend on its services.

The SSA “has done a good job of adapting to a very difficult situation, but the services that they are providing now are not a perfect match for the services they were providing before, some of which already had room for improvement,” said Stacy Cloyd, director of Policy and Administrative Advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

“Social Security beneficiaries are disproportionately older or have disabilities. Some are homeless,” Cloyd said. “We support people having options for accurate and timely services, but in-person services will need to be one of options for some people and some workloads.”

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