In March it will have been 2 years since the Social Security Administration closed its doors to the public. Since then, nearly all of their business has been conducted virtually – by phone, online, and through the mail. Initial plans to reopen January 3rd, 2022, were scrapped amid squabbles with the 3 unions representing the agency’s work force. Bargaining is scheduled to conclude by March 1st, but we will see how that goes. If negotiations are successful and pandemic conditions begin to show improvement, offices could reopen as soon as March 30th.
Customer service has been subpar at best, with overworked employees struggling to answer phones and handle customer inquiries effectively, while being held to volume and call time quotas. Our office, for example, spends much of its time on hold with local SSA offices, only to have the calls dropped or disconnected. Most other businesses have found a way to reopen during the pandemic, with various and creative Covid mitigation practices in place. It’s past time for the Social Security Administration to figure it out, too.
Some of the conditions being negotiated are:
- All employees and visitors wear masks, regardless of vaccination status
- Limited in-person hearings with management judges could begin in May, since schedulers are already working on April calendars and the 75-day rule needs to be observed
- Teleworking would still be an option, with a flexible or rotating schedule
- Office visits will be required to be scheduled, with walk-ins discouraged
While this plan seems like a good start, there is pushback from the unions, who favor a more gradual phasing-in approach. We will be monitoring this situation as it develops. Social Security field offices need to reopen to serve their customers. They can figure out a way to do it safely, while protecting their staff and the public they are charge with serving.