As of Nov. 22, 12,000 employees of the Social Security Administration across the country will no longer be able to work from home, as they have been doing for years, according to officials of the American Federation Government Employees.
The Trump Administration’s ending the popular program was the latest tangible evidence of its full-court press to upend decades of collective bargaining and drive out the unions that represent Federal workers, according to Ralph de Juliis, president of the AFGE Council that represents about 80 percent of the SSA staff.
“SSA had invested a lot of money in this, with every employee having a laptop,” Mr. de Juliis said in a phone interview. “And in July of 2017, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General found that the teleworkers actually produced more work. The people that handle the phones did more phone calls and those that handled claims cleared more claims.”
The SSA services 63 million Social Security recipients via its network of 1,200 offices in all 50 states and U.S. territories. It has served an eviction notice on AFGE Council 220 to vacate its offices after Thanksgiving.
“It has worked well with employees being more productive even though they don’t have access to a photo-copy machine, printer or a fax machine and only one computer screen,” Mr. de Juliis said. “Working at home shows a kind of respect and trust [from the agency] and it also limits the interruptions that always happen in an office setting.”
Under the program, which started as a pilot in 2013, SSA employees got one day a week to work from home in their jobs as Customer Service Representatives and Claims Specialists.
According to the union, the pay scale ranges from slightly below $35,000 to $90,000, depending on the title and years of experience. It takes three years to achieve what the agency describes as journeyman status.
But in a statement, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul defended the move as the best way to “dramatically” improve customer service.
“Social Security’s core mission is to provide timely and accurate service for the public, and the agency is falling short,” the agency wrote in response to a reporter query. “The Commissioner has empowered his senior leadership team to take necessary steps to address that shortfall,” adding that the at-home program “failed to put in place controls to measure the effect on public service or provide management with the ability to evaluate employee performance consistent with the Telework Act, which also provides that some functions require employees to work in the office.”
On May 25, 2018 President Trump issued executive orders that required all “executive departments and agencies to negotiate collective-bargaining agreements that will reduce cost and promote government performance and accountability.”
The orders made it easier to terminate civil servants, restricted their avenues for appeal and severely rolled back the amount of release time that union officials could use to represent rank-and-file members. It also cleared the way to physically remove the unions from the Federal workplace where they had maintained a presence for decades.
Two months later, Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled that key provisions of the executive orders were unconstitutional under the First Amendment and illegally imposed executive authority over congressional intent.
Reversed on Appeal
But in July 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District Court reversed the lower-court ruling court and dealt the unions a serious blow by requiring them to take their concerns to the Federal Labor Relations Authority first.
According to David Cann, director of bargaining for the AFGE, Federal agencies began to cut negotiations short and rushed to declare impasses so the Federal Service Impasse Panel could assume control of the process.
Mr. Cann said that strategy has cleared the way for a “scorched-earth strategy” by Federal managers to impose contracts that “take out root and stem, all of the negotiated benefits that had been bargained for over the life of the union in the workplace.”
The FSIP was created as an impartial body, but has the power to impose “contract terms through a final action,” according to its official website. “The parties may not appeal the merits of the Panel’s decision to any court.”
“Like we saw with Health and Human Services, they negotiate for one day before they declared an impasse for a term agreement, something that normally would take more negotiations than that and they were able to get a scorched-earth contract rubber-stamped,” Mr. Cann said.
‘Scrapping It Everywhere’
The Trump Administration assault on telecommuting, an option that had bipartisan support for years because it was perceived as good public policy since it reduced traffic congestion, saved the government money on real estate and cut air pollution while promoting better work/life balance, is not confined to the SSA.
“They are trying to get rid of it everywhere,” Mr. Cann said. “And the part that is crazy about that is that [historically] there have been dozens of initiatives which come from executive orders and some of which come from Federal regulations, which are telling the government and the General Services Administration to limit their [physical] footprint. And there are entire agencies where if they get rid of teleworking, they won’t be able to accommodate the employees that they have.”
He continued, “Making these jobs unworkable and making these agencies ineffective is a goal in and of itself when a part of what you are trying to do is snuff out the work of the Federal workforce, making it so that government doesn’t serve Americans.”
The members of the FSIP serve at the pleasure of the President and do not require Senate confirmation. In May 2017, Mr. Trump fired its existing members and replaced them with former members who served on the FSIP during the George W. Bush Administration or had been affiliated with right-wing and anti-union think tanks like the Goldwater Institute, Americans for Limited Government, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Fairness Center, and the Heritage Foundation.
SSA Commissioner Saul, who was appointed to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board by then-Gov. George Pataki, was also named by President Bush to the Paul Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which invests Federal employee retirement savings.
A major Republican donor and former board member of the Manhattan Institute, he ran into opposition because of his links to the right-wing think tank.
‘Struggling Under Cuts’
Mr. Saul was appointed by President Trump after the GOP Senate Majority successfully blocked President Obama’s nominee for five years. “President Trump dragged his feet making a nomination, leaving acting chief Nancy Berryhill to lead an agency struggling to provide customer service in the wake of draconian budget cuts,” according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a non-profit advocacy group.
In 2007 the New York Times reported that Mr. Saul, who was a vice-chair of the MTA at the time and running for a congressional seat, was under scrutiny for taking political donations from “from two developers bidding for the right to build a mammoth residential and commercial complex over the authority’s West Side railyards, according to Federal election filings.”
In February 2012, the Daily News reported that Mr. Saul, riding his bike near his Westchester estate, trespassed onto security-sensitive city Department of Environmental Protection Watershed land, and when confronted by an Environmental Police Officer, refused to stop, requiring the officer to knock him to the ground.
“In hopes of dodging responsibility, Saul claimed he was a police commissioner and showed an MTA Police Department ID bearing the words ‘commissioner’ and ‘civilian’,” the News reported. He then went on, it stated, to falsely claim the DEP officer had roughed him up, a charge dismissed by the local police.
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