Reps. Larson, DeLauro, Hayes Lead Letter Urging Social Security Administration to Protect Workers Against Coronavirus
Washington, D.C. – Representatives John Larson (CT-01), Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), and Jahana Hayes (CT-05), led a letter to the Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner, Andrew Saul, with support from Representatives Joe Courtney (CT-02), Jim Himes (CT-04), and Jan Schakowsky (IL-09). The letter urges him to protect front-line Social Security employees from unnecessary exposure to Coronavirus COVID-19. Representative Schakowsky is a Co-Chair of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Aging.
Last week, Commissioner Saul issued guidelines that omitted telework flexibility for front-end employees even amidst recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that telework be used liberally. Social Security employs approximately 40,000 public-facing workers, some of whom have reported an array of concerns from lack of ability to telework, limited access to cleaning supplies, and very little guidance on how to assist members of the public who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms when they visit SSA field offices. Representatives Hayes, DeLauro, and Larson led the following letter urging the SSA to protect workers while ensuring the continuity of Social Security services:
“Dear Commissioner Saul,
Given the recent spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19, we are writing to request that you take immediate action to protect the public and employees of the Social Security Administration (SSA), including the approximately 40,000 SSA staff working on the front lines and assisting members of the public daily. We write requesting that you immediately restore and maximize the use of telework to protect the health of millions of customers and employees who visit or work in Social Security field offices and hearing offices. Many of SSA’s customers are age 60 or above, or have pre-existing conditions, two communities the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognize as particularly vulnerable to severe health consequences after exposure to COVID-19.
The CDC’s guidelines recommend the development and implementation of “liberal leave and telework policies” as one of the most basic COVID-19 community transmission mitigation strategies available to workplaces. Additionally, they recommend “decreasing social contacts in the workplace,” as a minimal to moderate mitigation strategy.
On March 12, 2020 the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued guidance encouraging use of telework and leave:
Departments and agencies are further encouraged to approve leave for safety reasons to employees who are at higher risk as identified by the CDC and not telework-eligible. Federal Executive Branch departments and agencies may also grant weather and safety leave due to a "condition that prevents the employee or group of employees from safely traveling to or performing work at an approved location" (5 U.S.C. § 6329c(b)). Because COVID-19 prevents employees who are at higher risk from safely travelling to or performing work at an approved location, agencies may grant these employees safety leave under 5 U.S.C. § 6329c(b) at the agencies' discretion.
As of March 15, 2020, OPM has also recommended:
All Federal Executive Branch departments and agencies within the National Capital Region (NCR), consistent with OMB's recent guidance (OMB M-20-13), are asked to offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, consistent with operational needs of the departments and agencies as determined by their heads. In addition, we encourage agencies to use all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees, to the extent their work could be telework enabled. If employees are not eligible for telework, agency heads have the discretion to offer weather and safety leave, or the agency's equivalent, including for employees who may not have been considered "at higher risk" under 0MB M-20-13.
SSA should apply this sensible guidance to all regions impacted by COVID-19.
Additionally, we have received reports from field offices and other Social Security employees across the nation – from Connecticut and New York to Washington – of lack of communication with the public to encourage individuals to call SSA or use online services rather than visiting a field office, lack of guidance on how to assist members of the public who are exhibiting symptoms of being ill, lack of cleaning supplies in SSA offices, and telework denials for employees with pre-existing conditions and those caring for vulnerable individuals at home. This is unacceptable.
We strongly request the following:
(1)Immediately maximize the use of telework and the appropriate use of weather and safety leave, for all SSA components including field offices, hearing offices, and teleservice centers.
(2) Launch a robust public information campaign to ask members of the public who are ill or who have been exposed to COVID-19 to contact SSA by phone or use the agency’s online services, instead of physically visiting.
(3) Issue detailed guidelines on how employees should respond when they suspect a customer may have COVID-19.
(4) Immediately maximize the use of virtual hearings or telephone calls for Disability Determination Services and Administrative Law Judge hearings. However, any temporary action related to COVID-19 must not result in permanent limits on the right of claimants and beneficiaries to an in-person hearing.
(5) Make essential cleaning supplies available to your offices.
We appreciate your attention and urge you to act quickly.”