March 16, 2020 - Edwin Osorio - 2nd Vice President
The Social Security Administration has been the quintessential example of a federal agency that has prioritized protecting its employees by implementing every safe guard available to ensure the mitigation of contact with the coronavirus known as COVID-19. It has taking extraordinary measures to identify the most vulnerable employees (pregnant women, those with co-morbidities, more senior employees, etc.) within its ranks and provided them all with Weather and Safety Leave, has embarked on its most ambitious telework program to date, making telework available to anyone that wants it; has eliminated all but the most essential appointments, made all appointments telephone interviews, and eliminated all walk-in traffic; has provided employees with an abundance of protective gear such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer; has encouraged employees to wash their hands as often as possible without fear of being monitored; has told employees if they feel any symptoms they should stay home and will not be required to bring in a doctor’s note: and has advised all employees that have proximity with potentially infected individuals to stay home with administrative leave.
This sounds like an agency that has heeded every warning and learned the lessons of other countries that have already endured the contagion long before the U. S. This is what it would look like if there was a collaborative effort between the agency and the union. The problem is that none of this is true because the agency has refused to consult with the union and SSA has been adamant about not providing information of substance to the union or employees. The agency has instead done next to nothing in response to this pandemic. The forgoing scenario would have been the right approach as prescribed by the union for weeks and if the agency would have involved the union instead of ignoring them, a solid plan with multiple contingencies for different outcomes would have been unveiled to the employees; this would have inspired confidence and alleviated the stress the employees are feeling. In contrast, SSA has adopted a do nothing approach that waits for a critical event like a death to be responsive. This is what happens when the heads of the agency lack leadership; as a result it has become hazardous and the agency is unable to asses risk and prefers to roll the dice with the lives of the employees in the balance.
SSA has refused to provide the union with a plan to protect the employees despite all of its attempts to get out in front of the virus. This failing is a clear sign that SSA is over its head and does not have a plan or simply chooses to hide behind an opaque process that relies on reading from scripts that reveal nothing informative; the only guidance the agency has given puts the onus on employees to look after their own health. In the interim, countless employees and their families run the risk of exposing themselves to the virus. OPM over a month ago advised all federal agencies that have the capacity for telework to implement it to the fullest extent possible. SSA has provided telework to regional and central office employees that are at the lowest levels of risk because they don’t directly deal with the public. While other agencies are implementing more ambitious telework plans, SSA has made every effort to rebuke the pleas of the employees to return telework to them. Winston Churchill once said, “America does everything right after it exhausts every other possibility!” Let’s hope SSA doesn’t exhaust every wrong possibility before doing the rights thhing.
Some people argue that the Agency’s reticence to do anything is nothing more than their latest strategy to reduce the SSA work force. If they do nothing employees may get sick and die. Perhaps this is their Vision 2020 plan that goes beyond the expectations of their failed Vision 2025 plan to reduce the agency’s footprint by eliminating field offices and forcing the public to conduct all of their business online or over the phone. As farfetched as these ideas may be, when you have an agency that has demonstrated no empathy for their employees who are in panic and afraid of how COVID-19 will affect them and their families. Some might say that the agency has gone out of its way to avoid providing employees with the support they need in an unprecedented time of anxiety and fear. It’s very depressing knowing that even though SSA employees have great reverence for the work they do and sacrifice enormously in order to ensure the American public gets the best quality service possible; the agency places no value in their contributions; the agency goes out of its way to do the bear minimum and it would do lees if the law would permit it to. You just can’t help but wonder whose side is SSA on? But at the end of the day, what matters is that the great employees of SSA are supported and even if SSA has no desire to help these great employees, AFGE will always be there for them!