Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul upset many agency staff when he canceled a popular teleworking program in 2019.
“A time of workload crisis is not the time to experiment with working at home,” Saul said when he announced the policy, citing a need to reduce wait times for Social Security claimants.
But Saul himself did not work in the agency’s main Baltimore office even before the pandemic forced everyone into telework, says Ralph de Juliis, president of the AFGE Council 220, which represents Social Security employees in field offices and call centers.
“We were told he’s spending his time in New York because that’s where he’s from,” de Juliis told HuffPost.
De Juliis said agency workers could see that Saul wasn’t logging into his Skype account, either, which employees and managers use for internal communication at the agency. In January 2020, his Skype account had been inactive for 67 days, according to a screenshot de Juliis shared with HuffPost.
The pandemic soon brought a reversal of Saul’s telework clampdown. But now that coronavirus infections are subsiding, de Juliis worries Saul will go back to demanding in-person work.
It’s one of the major reasons unions and liberal advocacy groups want President Joe Biden to clean house at the SSA and fire both Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, the other remaining Donald Trump appointee.
The Senate confirmed Saul to a six-year term in 2019, putting the septuagenarian former businessman and Republican donor in charge of the agency tasked with sending monthly checks to tens of millions of retired and disabled Americans. Saul previously chaired the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which oversees a retirement savings plan for federal employees, and he served as a trustee for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
His current term wouldn’t expire until 2025. While this position would normally carry over between administrations, the Supreme Court recently suggested agency heads shouldn’t be shielded from presidential firings. And Biden didn’t hesitate to fire the Republican-appointed general counsel to the National Labor Relations Board before his term ended.
“We really think Biden should find new people to run the Social Security Administration, who haven’t made it a point to be bad and horrible to employees and the union,” de Juliis said.
The SSA’s press office ignored requests for comment for this story.
Personnel And Policy
Under Saul’s leadership, the agency has tightened eligibility rules for disability benefits and sought to diminish the role of administrative law judges when people appeal benefit denials. Most disability claims are denied initially, and administrative law judges give claimants a chance to plead their case in front of someone with a measure of independence from the agency.
But in its closing days, the Trump administration finalized a rule giving Social Security more leeway to use its own lawyers in some appeals hearings.
Members of the AFGE Council 220 and the Association of Administrative Law Judges held no-confidence votes against Saul last month, citing telework and the new disability appeals process. The AALJ also complained that the administration tried to implement a partially negotiated contract, essentially circumventing the collective bargaining process.
“They tried to eliminate our union and they’re trying to take our jobs through this appeals council rule that was hustled through” in December, Judge Melissa McIntosh, president of the AALJ, told HuffPost.
The progressive advocacy group Social Security Works and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who chairs a Social Security subcommittee, have also joined the unions’ calls for Saul to go.
“As agents of the Trump Social Security agenda, they cut the benefits that hardworking Americans have earned, attacked the Social Security Administration’s employees, denied beneficiaries due process, and needlessly increased disability reviews during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brown said last week. “No one has been safe from their path of destruction.”
The SSA’s leadership is set up as an independent commission, with appointees serving six-year terms that don’t coincide with changes in presidential administration. This setup was designed to shield leadership from partisan politics. But the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the president to be unable to fire an agency head without cause when it weighed in on whether Donald Trump could fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The court noted, however, that the SSA is a very different agency, mainly sending people money and not suing them to enforce the law as CFPB does.
The Biden administration put Saul on a list of “acting” agency heads in January, implying that his days are numbered. The White House declined to comment.
Labor relations are a major issue for the SSA, which has less staff than it did in previous decades even as millions more people are collecting retirement benefits.
Saul’s main justification for canceling telework before the pandemic was excessive wait times for people calling Social Security offices. An inspector general report from 2017 found mixed results from the telework project.
De Juliis said that in the five weeks after the agency reverted to telework during the pandemic compared to the five weeks prior, 54% fewer callers got a busy signal and 52% fewer calls were abandoned by the caller hanging up in frustration.
Though de Juliis said telework hasn’t diminished the quality of service available from Social Security offices, there’s no question that fewer disability applicants are getting served. Last year saw a sharp decrease in applications due to the closure of Social Security field offices.
A Social Security manager who is not a member of the union told HuffPost that telework was an important perk. Some job applicants who live far from the office wouldn’t have accepted positions if teleworking hadn’t been available.
“People are still mad about it,” said the manager, speaking anonymously for fear of losing their job. “Every day they’re saying, ‘What’s going to happen when the COVID emergency goes away?’”
Before the pandemic, the union printed out flyers with Saul’s face on them and posted them around the office. “WHERE IS SAUL? HE’S STILL MISSING,” the flyers said. “WE THOUGHT YOU CANCELED TELEWORK SO PEOPLE COULD BE AT WORK?”