By Edwin Osorio 2nd Vice President
In 1783 in the small New York town of Newburgh, General George Washington stood before a mutinous Colonial Army and began to address the angry mob. He clears his throat as he pulls a piece of paper out of his lapel. He unfolds the paper and begins to speak above the din of the raucous group that have already made up their mind that with no back pay, there is no allegiance to anyone—even if your name is George Washington. Washington attempts to read the prepared speech and takes a momentary pause in order to retrieve his spectacles from his lapel. He clears his throat and apologizes to the angry mob as he dons his spectacles he says, “I am sorry for in the course of defending our great country I have grown blind.” At that moment the angry mob grows sympathetic and sheepishly embarrassed as they recognize the great sacrifices they have all made were equaled if not surpassed by the subsequently proclaimed “Father of Our Country.”
There is no greater honor than to serve our great country. Some of us have the great fortune of being bestowed this privilege. In the course of serving our country some of us sacrifice more than anticipated while performing our duties. The frontline employees of Social Security are prime examples. Under normal circumstances these employees work tirelessly in order to ensure that millions of Americans get their retirement and disability checks on time, in addition to myriad other services. This is a daunting task that has become increasingly overwhelming over the years due to employee attrition and declining working conditions that are politically motivated. Frontline employees have been challenged beyond their capacity before the onset of a 2019 global pandemic.
With the onset of the most devastating pandemic of our lifetime, many of us find ourselves in a world we don’t recognize. Being in “lock down” is the plot of bad dystopian movies. Nevertheless, we are all facing these unprecedented challenges without the promise of imminent certainty. None of us truly know what a post pandemic world will look like. Will we ever shake hands again? Will lines always mandate six feet in between? The insidious infiltration of COVID-19 may have altered our lives forever but if you are a frontline SSA employee, you do not have the luxury of time to ponder what tomorrow will bring. Your life has changed unceremoniously for the worst and there is no time to be contemplative. Even though frontline SSA employees have been affected in all of the same ways as the rest of America social distancing, isolation, fear, loneliness, and depression, we also have to adopt a new way of doing business with no period of acclamation.
The vast majority of SSA frontline employees have never teleworked before and at the drop of a hat they were mandated to get their laptops and start working at home. There was no telework training. There was no period of adjustment to this new world that was thrust upon us. It was sink or swim with the consequences being the job we love. Perhaps this should be intuitive to a journeyman SSA frontline employee. After all, just do what you have always done. It’s not much different than being transferred to a different office. The scene is different but all of your training is still at your disposal and unless amnesia is a part of COVID-19, what’s the problem? To the average lay person, we should be thankful that we still have jobs. If only it was that simple.
The honest truth is that unless you have gone through it yourself, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the perils of telework if you were never prepared for it. And that’s what happened to the vast majority of SSA frontline employees. Even though for decades there have been incremental improvements to protect the health of employees while at work, none of these improvements were implemented at home. The advent of ergonomic chairs, ergonomic keyboards and mice, and other adaptive equipment such as ergonomic desks protect employees from the repetitive injuries that they are often susceptible. With no provisions to transfer these accommodations to the home, some employees were instantly transported to a time that little was known about reparative injuries and ergonomic equipment.
Consequently, employees that never had to think about safety at work because they had a union that always advocated for their safety, now employees are en masse experiencing back, neck, and shoulder pain, wrist pain, and eye strain from going from a 22-inch monitor to a 14-inch laptop screen due to the agency’s hasty and irresponsible implementation. Employees that have always been accustomed to a proper office chair with back support and arm rests are suddenly spending eight hours a day at their dining room table or living room coffee table. Employees that have always been accustomed to a private 6x9 work space are now forced to make the immediate adjustment to a cramped uncomfortable work space; they are required to leave their laptop in place (dining room, living room, bedroom, etc.) and turned on for 24 hours at their own expense in a space that in some cases had been dedicated for their family computer; or worse, it just sits there on the dining room table with a cable running across the dining room floor. This is a disruption to the entire family that comes at a time when the collective family consciousness is focused on the well-being of loved ones and the logistics of navigating of a family in a mandated “lock down” from society. These are trying times and frontline employees do not need their moments is despair exacerbated by such ill-conceived contrivances.
This is all happening without the guidance and support of SSA. Evidence of an impending pandemic crisis began to surface as late as the end of January. By mid-February AFGE was urging SSA to enter a stage of preparedness that included closing all SSA offices and implementing telework for the employees. AFGE has great faith in the efficacy and productivity of telework when implemented properly. Such a premeditated plan would have allowed for the contingencies of varying unique circumstances that many employees would encounter. Instead, SSA hedged its bets, rolling the dice that if they waited long enough they would never have to implement telework; and they were perfectly willing to wager the health and safety of their frontline employees in order to avoid reinstating telework. The number one tenet of a gambler is to never wager what you cannot afford to lose. This is a startling testimony to how the agency feels about their frontline employees.
One of AFGE’s most unique attributes is compassion for the lives of its members and this is a clear distinction from SSA Management. It’s because of AFGE’s pursuit of a prosperous quality of life that should never be impacted by an incessantly agency driven compulsion to extract capaciously more and more work from employees while simultaneously degrading employee rights and protections that have taken years to gain through collective bargaining. The Union takes great umbrage with the agency’s need to double down in a time of crisis to literally infringe on the civil liberties of its frontline employees to make up for the agency’s unpreparedness and short sightedness. It is unconscionable for the agency, two and a half weeks into telework to demand employees to turn off their smart speakers while conducting agency business. In times of crises it is the agency that must forego convention for expediency and not the frontline employees. Employees use their smart speakers for household functions like controlling lights, appliances, connecting to security alarms, smoke detectors, and climate controlling devices. The agency does not even consider that other household members may be using these devices—such as children that are home schooling. Because of agency mandates attached to telework, employees are forced to place household members that are not authorized by SSA in solitary confinement in order to protect the privacy of the public. Many frontline SSA employees have less than 800 square feet of living space and are guaranteed to be in violation of agency mandates.
The Agency has dehumanized frontline employees for the purpose of exploiting them with a guilt free conscious. This did not begin with a pandemic. However, under the most cataclysmic of circumstances and the agency’s perfidy, its callous response has metamorphosed frontline employees psyche and made them even more vulnerable to feelings of isolation, anxiety of social distancing, and the extreme disruptions to daily life. The inability to prepare for such uncertainty has compounded an already untenable situation that has the potential to introduce all sorts of maladies such as depression and other psychological consequences. It is only with the agency’s retreat from marginalizing the Union that the agency will be able to implement large scale solutions that will protect the rights and protections of frontline employees, as well as continue to promote the efficiency of federal service. At a time when frontline employees are prone to sadness, irritability, emotional distraught, emptiness, and overall mental exhaustion, only a joint union/management effort can begin to alleviate the pressure and create a more conducive work environment.
As frontline employees have been progressively demotivated by the agency, they can be reinvigorated by recognizing their value and contributions. Frontline employees are now having acute experiences of grief, trauma, and sheer exhaustion added to the daily stress that goes with the job. If the agency is willing to engage in a collaborative effort with the Union, we can achieve goals that broadly enhance the employee’s ability to perform the duties of their position while increasing office morale. This can be achieved by not underestimating the reverence employees have for their job. The Union has always been predicated on the principle of problem solving to achieve the best results for the employees. The best way to do this is with a solid partnership between the agency and the Union where both sides have an equal position in collective bargaining. The only thing that can be worse than going through a catastrophic time is going through one and not learning anything from it.