March 31, 2020 - Edwin Osorio - 2nd Vice President
The barn is aflame, a cacophony of animal screams reach crescendo levels above the din of explosions that trigger in rapid succession. There is no escaping the impending demise of the metaphorical edifice known as the Social Security Administration. In the midst of a potentially cataclysmic pandemic, SSA are not seeking the quickest exit to safety, they are instead “going in through the outdoor” toward the contamination and bringing us all inside with them. If this sounds like hyperbole on steroids, it’s because you are not an SSA frontline employee being asked to once again sacrifice unnecessarily. This depiction of the Agency’s handling of the 2019 contagion pandemic that has temporarily halted the lives of billions of people on the planet will most certainly resonate with you if you are one of the 26,000 frontline employees that has been living in a world of uncertainty; waiting for clarity and leadership from the top.
The Leadership within SSA has been missing in action since the onset of this global pandemic. This is despite all of the attempts of AFGE to compel the agency into action by putting the health of their frontline employees first. Leading the charge are Council 220 president and executive vice president Ralph de Juliis and Peter Harris, who have been tenacious in their pursuit of a safety first approach for all SSA employees by the agency. Even though SSA had essentially euthanized the telework program for frontline SSA employees, it was the relentless and exhaustive efforts of de Juliis and Harris that forced SSA to recognize the inevitable: telework is an imperative and necessary tool in protecting frontline SSA employees while preserving the vital services for the American public. While AFGE applauds SSA’s move to expand telework to all frontline employees, the circuitous route the agency has taken only exacerbated the anxiety and fear of all frontline employees that were not only concerned with their own health and safety, but the well-being of their loved ones.
It should be noted that while SSA came to the decision to implement telework on March 19, 2020, DeJuliis and Harris had been advocating for telework since the beginning of February when all evidence was pointing to a pandemic. The agency wasted valuable time stonewalling AFGE; ignoring their subsequently confirmed concerns and the agency’s failing to enter a stage of preparedness that would have undoubtedly prevented many illnesses, and possibly the loss of some lives.
While some frontline employees were already experienced with telework before it was unceremoniously taken away, many had never teleworked and did not know what to expect. Many were literally told they were being mandated to telework literally hours before they ended their tour for the day in their office. This meant in the middle of a global crisis that nobody had ever experienced before, a vast majority of frontline employees were being thrust into the deepest waters of unchartered territory without the support of management. Instead, they were given a proverbial contract to sign in the form of a telework agreement that primarily stated that if they could not comply with the provisions put forth, they would be in violation; with no real notice of what the consequences might be, many signed under duress and others vacillated while they sought information that was not readily available; guidance was inconsistent and it seemed like every employee was in search of leadership.
Nobody was more certain of the agency’s abdication of leadership than de Juliis and Harris. For weeks they had bombarded the agency with demands to review the agency’s contingency plans for the impending pandemic. Council 220 1st Vice President Bill Price provided the agency with every potential scenario based on available data and Council 220 3rd Vice President Sherry Jackson mobilized a herculean effort to provide Congress with the state of play within the agency that threatened not only SSA’s esteemed frontline employees, but the American public. Because of all of these concerted efforts by the Union, the agency finally took action begrudgingly, but at what cost to our frontline employees?
SSA frontline employees are now home doing the work of the agency despite being ill-equipped and given no time to be acclimated. The agency has failed to provide frontline employees with their monitors, keyboards, mice, ergonomic chairs, etc. This means that for eight hours a day they are staring at a small and poorly lit laptop screen—did I mention the agency withdrew its vision coverage for employees? Some do not have a desk and are forced to work on their dining room table or living room couch. Some do not have adequate internet speed or bandwidth and believe it or not, because SSA has many baby boomers in its ranks, there are some that don’t have internet or even an email address. They are not technically savvy and will not have the same technical support as in the office. If the agency was not so concerned with maintaining its adversarial relationship with AFGE, perhaps they would have worked with them and taken their recommendations seriously. The entire month of February could have been spent developing a plan to implement telework while addressing all of the health and safety concerns that apply to work in the office. This could have been done with the aspiration of never needing to implement it. The agency failed to do so and the working conditions that many employees have been forced to endure are unconscionable and detrimental to their health and their ability to be productive. This absence of foresight illustrates the lack of reverence the agency has for who they ignominiously tout as their “most valuable asset,” the frontline employees. AFGE’s resolve is not based on recrimination. Under the leadership of de Juliis, Harris, Price, and Jackson AFGE remains as invested in partnering with SSA in order to protect SSA frontline employees without degrading its responsibility to the American public.