Lawmakers call for permanent leadership at Social Security

Social Security continues to hemorrhage staff, while unions report a continued lack of progress in implementing the president’s labor policies.

Social Security continues to hemorrhage staff, while unions report a continued lack of progress in implementing the president’s labor policies. Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Nearly two years into his tenure, President Biden has yet to name his choice to lead SSA, despite low morale, mounting attrition and lack of progress in labor-management relations.

A group of 16 Senate Democrats last week urged President Biden to nominate a permanent commissioner of the Social Security Administration, attributing persistent workforce issues at the agency in part to the lack of Senate-confirmed leadership.

The Social Security Administration has operating under Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi since Biden fired former Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, both holdovers from the Trump administration, in July 2021. Those appointees’ ouster came after months of urging from lawmakers and federal employee unions, who accused them of dragging their feet on implementation of Biden-era initiatives aimed at rolling back the Trump administration’s anti-union policies.

But in the 16 months since then, Biden has failed to nominate a permanent commissioner for consideration by the Senate. And per several metrics, not much has changed at the agency in the intervening time: already understaffed, Social Security continues to hemorrhage staff, while unions report a continued lack of progress in implementing the president’s labor policies.

In 2021, the agency ranked 15th out of 17 large federal agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, based on key questions from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, a nearly 5-point decline from its performance in 2020. In May, an agency spokesman blamed its poor performance on “chronic underfunding” that has delayed hiring initiatives.

According to congressional testimony from Grace Kim, the agency’s deputy director for operations, in May, attrition between September 2021 and May was at 7%, accounting for 2,900 employees leaving, and she estimated a total of 4,500 operations employees would have left the agency by the end of the fiscal year.

In a letter to Biden last week, 16 Democratic senators, led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, argued that a Senate-confirmed leader at the helm of Social Security could jumpstart efforts to improve working conditions at the agency. Acting officials often have less leeway to implement policy changes, due to their status as ostensibly temporary caretakers.

“Under prior leadership, SSA was among the most hostile agencies in the federal government in the way it chose to implement the since-repealed anti-union executive orders from 2018,” they wrote. “Employee satisfaction is falling at SSA, and SSA employees report feelings of exhaustion at among the highest rates of any federal agency. Permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership at the agency will help improve this longstanding challenge for the agency and its employees.”

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents employees in the Office of Hearing Operations, said he believes that permanent leadership is required not just to improve morale and labor-management relations, but to begin work on modernizing the agency’s service delivery model, whose age caused major headaches during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Confirmation of a permanent SSA commissioner and principal deputy commissioner will provide SSA with the ability to implement the fundamental changes necessary to reform the agency into a model employer that values its employees and respects its unions as true partners, and to transform service delivery to meet 21st century needs in cutting-edge ways without impacting public access to help,” he said.

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site ("Lawmakers Are Calling for Permanent Leadership at Social Security.") 

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