One federal agency is weighing disciplinary action for some of its employees after monitoring their workflows remotely, ushering in a new layer of managerial oversight to match the mass telework era.
The Social Security Administration’s inspector general office has in recent months conducted surveys of computer logs and telephone records of its employees, aiming to ensure its employees were engaging in work activities at the proper times. The probes have resulted in employee discipline, including firings, according to SSA IG staff.
Gail Ennis, SSA’s inspector general, has defended the agency’s actions as obtaining “organization-wide data” to “inform decision-making regarding post-reentry work arrangements.” Ennis said she was merely following a directive by the Biden administration to use data for back-to-office decision making and her own agenda promoting evidence-based policy making. She added it was necessary “as stewards of taxpayer dollars” to hold employees accountable “when appropriate.”
“Failing to do so would be detrimental to public service, the OIG mission, and the morale of the many employees who go above and beyond in their contributions every day,” Ennis said in a letter to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which had raised concerns about the investigations.
In a message to employees in July on “reentry planning” obtained by Government Executive, Ennis announced to employees she had requested an assessment of the workforce’s remote work productivity. She noted the agency found, as a general matter, the IG’s office remained consistently productive and had “demonstrated an ability to produce meaningful results” in extraordinary circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the “vast majority” of employees worked the hours they said they did and “met their obligations as public servants.”
Ennis added, however, that not all employees performed so admirably.
“Regretfully, some employees did not, and they will be held accountable for their conduct,” she said. She explained that employees must put forward an honest effort in their duties and maintain “high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.” Ennis cautioned employees that moving forward, they must remember that public service is a public trust and that we have a duty first and foremost to the Constitution, laws, and ethical principles.”
One employee estimated that nearly two-dozen employees are facing potential discipline. That would represent about 7% of the IG’s Office of Investigations workforce. During a town hall meeting, employees were informed that the IG’s IT department conducted the review and a top official warned in a “threatening manner” that a demonstrated failure to work dutifully would result in severe discipline. The employee said since the agency began remote work at the outset of the pandemic, all staff have been required to email their supervisor in the morning to “log on” and explain their tasks for the day. They also then send a “log off” email at the end of each day, explaining what they accomplished.
Employees brought their concerns to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the union that represents 90% of SSA IG agents. The office has a total of more than 500 workers. In a letter to Ennis, union National President Larry Cosme said his members reported a work environment that had become “dysfunctional, derogatory and demeaning.” Cosme also defended employees accused of slacking off at home by noting investigators’ activities are not “confined to a computer.” Those workers may have been out working in the field, something computer logs would not have indicated.
Mary Miller, a spokesperson for the OIG, would not say how many employees are facing discipline, only that it is a “small number.” She said the office has and will continue to “consider all mitigating evidence provided by employees, supervisors and third-party sources.” While multiple sources said termination actions have already commenced for some workers, Miller said no corrective action has been taken to date.
Despite the allegations of employees acting inappropriately during remote work, the IG’s office since the pandemic sent staff home has opened more than 8,000 cases, made 228 arrests and obtained 828 convictions. Ennis said the agency has “continued to achieve significant investigative success” and has told workers that by the end of September the agency will offer more workplace flexibilities on a permanent basis than it did before the pandemic.
Ennis cited a specific return-to-office memorandum jointly issued by the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration. The document called for agencies to rely on evidence for decision making, including by “seeking and considering data and information regarding the impact of personnel policies and procedures on employee engagement, mission delivery and outcomes.” It also, however, called for agencies to gather data by surveying their workforces directly.