Union demands action against US inspector general in telework spying row

By on 22/10/2021 | Updated on 24/10/2021
Gail Ennis says that remote-working SSA OIG staff who had “not met their obligations” would be “held accountable for their conduct”. Photo by Sharad Kachhi via Pexels

President Biden is being urged to take action against the inspector general of the Social Security Administration after a row between Gail Ennis and a union over telework monitoring led to a vote of no confidence from its employees.

The conflict started in September when it was revealed that the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General, (SSA OIG) led by Ennis, had been monitoring employees’ computer logs and telephone records to keep tabs on the productivity of home workers. Government Executive reported that according to staff, the monitoring has led to disciplinary action, including dismissals.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), which represents 90% of the OIG’s staff who are responsible for preventing and detecting fraud and waste at the SSA, raised concerns about the telework monitoring. It asked Ennis to address employees’ fears with its representatives.

In a letter it said that members reported a work environment that had become “dysfunctional, derogatory and demeaning”. Ennis, who was appointed by former President Trump, responded in a letter addressed directly to staff rejecting the union’s claims.

In a subsequent and stinging letter to Ennis, the FLEOA said her response contained “approximate dates and self-serving, skewed numbers” and that she had “thwarted” their efforts to engage with her.

The union said that “troubling trends indicate morale is at an all-time low” and Ennis’ lack of engagement had forced it to survey its SSA OIG members. Of those responding, 98% said they had no confidence in Ennis. It also pointed to the Partnership for Public Service’s latest Best Places to Work ranking – based on the Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey – stating that the OIG’s ranking had dropped significantly under Ennis’ tenure. It now sits at 382 out of 411 government agencies. “The OIG went from being one of the best OIGs to work for to the second to last,” it said.

The letter added that the “majority” of the SSA OIG’s investigative staff had articulated the “inequities of your management and how it endangers their lives, work environment and productivity on behalf of the American people… rest assured, this letter and our vote will be submitted to the congressional committees with oversight over the Social Security Administration as well as to the White House”.

Claims rejected

Responding to the concerns around productivity monitoring, Ennis was unrepentant. In her letter to staff she said: “I am sure you would agree it is 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.”

She said the office had “demonstrated an ability to produce meaningful results” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she said that while the vast majority of employees “met their obligations” as public servants, “regretfully, some employees did not, and they will be held accountable for their conduct”.

Mary Miller, spokesperson for the SSA OIG, told Government Executive that the union’s letter was inaccurate. While multiple sources claimed that staff had been fired, she said no such action had taken place to date.

The FLEOA’s letter claimed that 37% of special agents at the SSA OIG had either retired or transferred since Ennis became inspector general in 2019 and as a result, hundreds of fraud cases had not been concluded, “which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars”. Ennis countered that 7% of the total workforce had been lost in the last 18 months and promised to fill vacancies.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *