SSA: Unions, congressional Democrats want faster pace in labor reform

The Social Security Administration is under fire from unions and congressional Democrats unhappy with the agency's pace in implementing the Biden administration's changes to labor-management relations, and many are seeking the ouster of the Trump-appointed agency heads.

The Social Security Administration is under fire from unions and congressional Democrats unhappy with the agency's pace in implementing the Biden administration's changes to labor-management relations, and many are seeking the ouster of the Trump-appointed agency leaders.

The American Federation of Government Employees wants a return to the bargaining table to renegotiate a contract that is based in part on limitations on union activity included in Trump administration executive orders that have since been repealed.

In rolling back those orders, President Joe Biden ordered agencies to bargain over a broader set of "permissive" topics.

"SSA is looking for any reason not to reopen the current contract," said Ralph DeJuliis, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents 29,000 SSA employees in field offices and telephone service centers. "SSA is, in our opinion, not following the Biden executive orders."

The entire contract is "tainted," said Barri Sue Bryant, president of AFGE local 2809, which represents employees at an SSA operations center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

The union wants to reopen the entire 2019 contract, but it is still waiting for SSA to give further guidance on what it will agree to bargain over.

SSA is implementing Biden's executive order "responsively and responsibly," a SSA spokesperson told FCW. "Building collaborative working relationships with our union partners" is "critically important" to the agency.

SSA asked unions for input after receiving guidance sent out to agencies by the Office of Personnel Management. Agencies are required to review any collective bargaining agreement sections that implemented the rescinded Trump orders.

SSA's assessment should be done by April 23, the agency spokesperson said.

In the meantime, the union wants the agency to suspend the use of the agency's version of improvement performance plans, called Opportunity to Perform Successfully Plans, given to feds for a chance to improve before being fired for poor performance, but that hasn't happened yet, Bryant said.

Changes to performance plans and terminations were included in one of the now-defunct Trump workforce executive orders.

The agency and the union have made progress on official time -- the practice of permitting senior union officials to conduct union business on the job. Official time, which was nearly eliminated by the Trump executive order, has been temporarily reset to levels closer to those in the 2012 bargaining agreement, Bryant said. That temporary agreement changing that can last up to seven months.

The agency and union have also established a resolution team that can now start to work through a backlog of issues like information requests and unfair labor practice charges that have accumulated since around 2018.

Bargaining is set to start on several issues, including the agency's recently issued plan to support a safe return to the workplace as COVID-19 vaccinations become more widely available.

Another top priority for the union is creating a long-term teleworking plan, Bryant and DeJuliis said.

In 2019, the agency cut back on its teleworking program before restoring it to cope with the pandemic. Some employees are anxious about the lack of information from the agency about teleworking protocols for the future and when employees will be required to come back to the office, DeJuliis said. The union also wants to bargain over SSA's reposturing plan outlining how employees will be brought back and how in-person service of the public will function.

In a March 26 letter shared with FCW that was sent from Federal Labor Relations Authority's regional office to SSA on March 26, an FLRA official encouraged the agency to bargain over several issues related to the agency's plan, writing that "the amicable resolution of unfair labor practices disputes serves … the public interest."

The recent appointment of a general counsel at FLRA, which has been without one since 2017, means that the office will now be able to pursue charges for unfair labor practice charges that remain unresolved.

Despite some improvement, unions and some lawmakers are still pushing for the ouster of Trump-appointed agency leaders. But getting rid of Trump's SSA commissioner and deputy commissioner isn't so easy. Commissioner Andrew Saul, whose six-year term runs through 2025, can be fired by the president after a finding of "neglect of duty or malfeasance in office." The Senate-confirmed deputy David Black, a former senior White House advisor under Trump, also has a six-year term but can be removed by the president without an adverse finding.

In a March 5 letter, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and several committee colleagues called for the removal of Saul and Black.

"What SSA needs is a change in the culture," DeJuliis said. "Until they change, we have very little hope of seeing any change."

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