When President-elect Joe Biden took the stage to address the country on Saturday, November 7, Americans across the country took a sigh of relief. Finally, we could all turn off the news every now and then. We could rest assured our leaders would act in the best interest of public health amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After four years of mismanagement, gaslighting, and anti-worker bias, federal employees wouldn’t have to work under the thumb of an administration that sought to undermine their work at every step of the way.
As representatives of 26,000 employees in field offices, workload support units, and teleservice centers, we are ready for a new day of leadership at the Social Security Administration. The appointment of the next Social Security Administration Commissioner will not only set the tone for the next four years of workplace management at SSA, but have lasting implications for the millions of Americans who rely on the services we provide.
As President-elect Biden’s team of advisors begin the transition process, SSA employees believe any candidate for the next commissioner must meet a base level of criteria in order to successfully lead our agency.
First, the next commissioner must fundamentally respect the dignity of work: that all labor has value, and all SSA employees are worthy of respect from their peers in management. President-elect Biden has often spoken about the dignity of work on the campaign trail, pledging to “ensure that workers are treated with dignity and receive the pay, benefits and workplace protections they deserve.”
The right to adequate workplace protections is particularly important in the era of COVID-19. Just last April, Social Security employees fought for and won the right to work remotely amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. Commissioner Andrew Saul, who had taken away our right to work remotely in 2019, actively fought against this basic employee protection, despite the immediate threat to public health and safety. Once the agency conceded, management spent months ignoring the fact that our employees performed better than ever from the safety of our homes and refused to collaborate with the union on a thoughtful approach to bring people back to the office and maintain the current high production levels of employees.
The SSA commissioner oversees an operation of 55,000 employees nationwide. The next commissioner must openly commit to acting in the best interest of public health and guarantee to our employees that they can continue to fulfill the mission of our agency from the safety and security of their homes as long as COVID-19 is spreading rampantly in our country.
Finally, the next commissioner must commit to open and honest dialogue with the union to ensure that our concerns are heard and respected. Furthermore, this commitment must be met throughout all levels of management at SSA. For too long, our employees have been ignored and undermined by management, who have been given license by the Trump administration to disrespect employees and refuse to bargain with us for basic rights.
At SSA under Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, the rot runs deep. It’s time we finally see the commitment to agency-employee relations that has been sorely missed.
While it’s important to see these attributes in our next agency commissioner, employees across the federal government face a fundamental barrier to exercising our rights: a Federal Service Impasses Panel stacked with anti-employee partisans and a Federal Labor Relations Authority that has lacked a General Counsel for four years. Unlike our brothers and sisters in the private sector, federal employees do not have the right to strike. We must settle disputes with our agencies through the FSIP, and ultimately the FLRA. President Trump has stacked the FSIP with the most extreme group of partisans in the 21st century. For the sake of all federal employees, President-elect Biden must appoint a General Counsel at the FLRA and replace the political appointees on both FLRA and FSIP with thoughtful, nonpartisan panelists.
The task ahead of President-elect Biden is formidable: not only will he need to realign the federal government to once again serve the American people, he must rebuild it after President Trump ran it into the ground. We are encouraged by President-elect Biden’s commitment to working people and sincerely hope our vision for the next Social Security Administration is heard loud and clear.
Ralph de Juliis is the President of AFGE Council 220, which oversees Social Security employees in telecommunication centers and field offices around the country.