Of all the ways agencies are facing the threat of a government shutdown this week, the anxiety about the effect on the Social Security Administration has been one of the most public discussions.
Among the most visible debates are disagreements on Capitol Hill about SSA’s budget and employee union attempts to highlight the potential harms of these cuts.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee are arguing over the exact amount of proposed cuts to SSA. As it prepares for furloughs and work stoppages, the agency is also in the midst of negotiating a new union contract.
Michael Astrue, SSA’s commissioner, sent a note to agency employees trying to tamp down the budget fears.
“As we await Congressional action, we are doing what we can to minimize the budget uncertainties from interfering with your lives and work,” Astrue wrote in an e-mail to employees Feb. 23.
“You should know that we are considering a variety of scenarios but we have not made any final decisions. We will do what we can to prevent furloughs caused by not having enough money to pay you. That strategy may mean tough choices like cutting back on or eliminating overtime and expanding the hiring freeze. I regret that I cannot give you precise information about what will happen, but I am uncomfortable not letting you know some of the possible outcomes so that you can begin to plan accordingly.”
House lawmakers disagree on how much of a cut SSA would see if Congress passed the initial 2011 continuing resolution that called for a total of $61 billion in cuts across all agencies. Republicans say the cut to SSA in this in initial bill was about 1 percent; Democrats say the cut would have been closer to 9 percent.
Still, the American Federation of Government Employees is staging a one-day march on Wednesday “to educate the public about the devastating impact the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 federal budget will have on the Social Security Administration,” the union stated in a press release.
AFGE said these marches will happen in more than 20 states, including: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, SSA and the union finished a second week of negotiating last Friday for a new contract. SSA workers have been working under the old contract, even though it expired more than a year ago.
SSA and AFGE completed their first round of negotiations in January and agreed to 12 of the most straightforward issues in the new contract, said Witold Skwierczynski, AFGE’s chief negotiator.
“The entire contract has about 50 issues so the easiest 12 are agreed upon,” Skwierczynski said. “We now are embarked on the toughies. Things like appraisals, performance awards, some union institutional stuff like office space, the use of their e-mail and some travel and training issues.”
“They haven’t decided anything despite the fact a furlough is potentially imminent,” he said. “We were to negotiate scenarios about what may happen, and how agency will implement furloughs. But since they were unable to tell us anything today about what they are planning, we are discussing proposals we will put on the table on any particular scenario.”
He said SSA management wouldn’t tell the union who is essential or what jobs are exempt. Skwierczynski said SSA management also didn’t want to discuss if there was a funding shortfall, if they planned to keep a short staff or just close offices altogether to make up for the lack of funding.
He added that AFGE and SSA are deferring current contract negotiations to March 22.
“We are up against difficult negotiating team on management side who is reluctant to compromise in many areas,” he said. “We are hopeful with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service involved we can whittle down the differences, and then go to federal services impasse panel if we need to.”
Skwierczynski said among the top issues employees want AFGE’s help with is around workplace stress, specifically around having a more flexible working environment.
He said health and safety issues around indoor temperature and air quality were among the other top issues as were alternative work schedules for field employees, including flex time, telework and credit hours.
“I’ve done a lot of contracts and there is an evolution involved and we are cognizant that we have to get to it,” Skwierczynski said. “The agency’s strategy is to keep the current contract in place so they are stretching the process out. We need to try to start getting to our final positions and get to the bottom line.”
Among the areas AFGE and SSA management have agreed upon are a new comprehensive lactation agreement for nursing mothers and improving the process for employees to submit claims for worker’s compensation.
Skwierczynski said under a new contract nursing mothers would have an additional 15 minutes a day to do lactation as well as a secure space with electricity and water.
“We’ve been working on this for four months and the hang up was the lactation policy and SSA’s management’s reluctance to provide additional time,” he said.
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