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SEC Institutes Telework-Only Thanks to Robust Remote Work Program

  March 10, 2020 | By Erich Wagner, Government Executive

The Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday instructed employees at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to work remotely until further notice, after an employee began treatment for “respiratory symptoms.”

Although it is not yet clear whether the employee has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, officials said mandating telework is a precautionary measure.

“Even with increased telework, the SEC remains able and committed to fully executing its mission on behalf of investors, including monitoring market function and working closely with other regulators and market participants,” an SEC spokesperson said Tuesday.

SEC’s quick adoption of telework for all D.C.-area employees comes as federal employee groups sound the alarm about a number of departments being slow to incorporate telework in their continuity of operations plans, particularly those agencies that have been at the forefront of cutbacks on the workplace flexibility.

On Tuesday, the Association of Administrative Law Judges, which represents around 1,300 ALJs at Social Security Administration hearing offices around the country, said the agency has rejected recommendations to encourage more telephonic hearings for Social Security disability benefits cases. The union said the measure could be helpful, particularly in light of the fact that applicants tend to skew older and have underlying health issues.

The key to SEC’s ability, and willingness, to mandate telework is that the agency has long embraced the practice across presidential administrations. Telework was included in the National Treasury Employees Union’s first collective bargaining agreement with SEC in 2002, despite management’s initial opposition.

Each subsequent union contract resulted in expanded telework availability for employees. According to the latest contract, up to 25% of bargaining unit employees can work remotely anywhere between three and five days per week, depending on tenure. And according to the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent report on telework in the federal government, in fiscal 2017, fully 91% of SEC’s workforce participated in the program.

Over the weekend, OPM issued another set of guidance to agencies to help them prep for the possibility of disruptions related to the coronavirus, which included encouraging agencies to set up ad-hoc telework agreements and alternative work schedules.

But it remains unclear whether agencies wary of telework will finally get on board. AALJ President Melissa McIntosh said that Social Security Administration officials merely told her that the agency would take her requests for expanded hearings by telephone “under advisement.”

“We emphatically urge the Social Security Administration to put the health of the American public first and immediately implement commonsense suggestions,” McIntosh said in a statement. “Many claimants in our hearing rooms and offices report they have compromised immunity and could be particularly at risk for the coronavirus. As administrative law judges, we take the health and safety of the claimants, representatives and our colleagues very seriously.”

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