In ousting the two top leaders of the SSA, the Biden administration effectively sent yet another signal of the administration’s reversal of positions on labor relations and telework issues in comparison with the prior administration.
That signal comes as agencies are working to finalize “reentry” and “post-reentry” plans for their workplaces in a post-pandemic environment; in guidance for crafting those plans, the administration stressed to agencies that they must negotiate with unions over topics that are negotiable, notably the frequency and other terms of teleworking.
The White House late last week fired SSA commissioner Andrew Saul after he refused to resign on request (deputy commissioner David Black did resign on request). Biden named as acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level SSA position.
In removing Saul, the White House pointedly issued a statement listing criticisms including that he had “terminated the agency’s telework policy that was utilized by up to 25 percent of the agency’s workforce, [and] not repaired SSA’s relationships with relevant federal employee unions including in the context of COVID-19 workplace safety planning.”
Saul cut back on telework at the SSA in late 2019, asserting that the program was being abused—although not detailing those alleged abuses. That set off a dispute with unions at the agency which claimed the SSA was violating an obligation to bargain over such changes. Those disputes continued—and have drawn in many Democrats in Congress to the union side—even as the pandemic compelled the SSA to put far more employees into telework status, many of them full-time, that was the case before the cutback.
The AFGE said that “President Biden made the right call to send these Trump appointees packing and instead appoint someone who is dedicated to investing in Social Security. We are excited to begin a new era with acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi and look forward to building back a better SSA.”
Saul also had clashed with the Association of Administrative Law Judges over a policy of having higher-level officials, rather than those judges, issue initial decisions in some disability cases. That union, too, applauded Saul’s removal.
The firing shortly followed a legal opinion from the Justice Department saying the White House was free to take that action in light of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing removal of leaders with long fixed terms at two other agencies.
Saul—who among other past roles was a member of the TSP governing board in 2002-2011—for his part has asserted that he remains legally the SSA commissioner until the originally set expiration date for his term in 2025.