An audit has illustrated issues that arose with the partial reopening of SSA field offices, including a lack of contact information on visitors and no guarantee that visitors who later learn they have the Coronavirus or have been exposed to it will report it back to the agency.
Such issues could become common across government as more federal employees potentially will be brought back to their official duty stations and for more days a week once agencies create long-term workforce plans under a recent Biden administration directive and then satisfy bargaining obligations and give affected employees advance notice of changes to their work arrangements.
The SSA has been under pressure from Congress—mainly but not exclusively from Republicans—to increase in-person service, along with the IRS and several other agencies that provide substantial amounts of personal service.
The audit was done in response to a congressional request to assess the results of SSA’s policy in effect since March 2020 in which its 1,200 field offices, where 28,000 employees normally work, are open to the public by appointment only. Services meriting appointments include for example requests for immediate payments by persons in dire need. In addition to the employees required for such appointments, a limited number of managers and other employees enter the offices to perform certain other tasks such as receiving and sending mail.
The audit found that on average, some 2,200 employees and some 1,600 visitors have been in the offices daily. However, the IG found that the agency “does not maintain contact information” for all visitors to those facilities nor for contractors such as security guards and cleaning staff.
“This lack of information impairs SSA’s ability to support local health departments with their contact tracing efforts” when someone has tested positive for the Coronavirus, it said.
It added that, if an employee has been or may have been exposed, fellow employees are notified and told whether they need to quarantine – but for privacy reasons they are not told the name of the co-worker, which is information that could better help them judge their own risk.
The SSA has told employees and contractors to report positive diagnoses to their supervisors or contracting officers, who in turn are to report any positive tests to the SSA medical office.
However, while visitors are asked screening-type questions before a visit, they merely “may” report a later positive test result to the office where they visited, and the agency said it has “no mechanism to require them to report.” It added that a “handful” of offices have had to close temporarily due to a positive exposure.
The IG added that its work is continuing, including a survey and interviews to determine whether the agency has followed its stated safety standards.