SSA nominee seeks to mend labor-management fences

Friday - 8/1/2014, 4:19am EDT

Carolyn Watts Colvin, commissioner nominee, SSA

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By Ariel Levin-Waldman
Special to Federal News Radio

Senate lawmakers and others say it's time to repair a five-year divide between labor unions and the Social Security Administration. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) called labor management relations between unions and SSA the worst among all agencies.

Carolyn Watts Colvin, the nominee to be commissioner of SSA, said at her confirmation hearing on Thursday that she promised to use her experience to try to the bridge the gap. She's been acting SSA commissioner since February 2013.

"There's always been a very acrimonious relationship in the agency," said Colvin. "But what I've done is I'd meet with them on a regular basis, I have lunch with them without management staff so we can begin to get to know one another. I've had relationship training given by the Federal Labor Relations Board to have managers and the union come together and figure out how we can build trust, how we can communicate better."

Relations deteriorated in 2009 when labor negotiations dragged into a five-year stalemate over a new contract between SSA and the American Federation of Government Employees. In 2010, negotiations got so bad that AFGE refused to come to the table with SSA without a special mediator.

SSA and AFGE finally came to an agreement on a new contract in 2012.

Another question Colvin will eventually have to answer is SSA's rising administrative costs. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked why SSA's administrative budget rose 34 percent over the past decade. But Social Security retirement and disability beneficiaries increased only 24 percent during that same time period.

Colvin also said it's time to modernize SSA's aging IT network. She said this includes finding a new programming language to replace the 1959 invention COBOL.

"We recognize that we have to move away from COBOL to some extent — but not fully," Colvin said. "But there is a plan, an IT plan, that will in fact gradually move some of that COBOL language and replace it with other types of language."

Lawmakers also asked Colvin how to prevent disability insurance fraud. Colvin said the agency would continue to use predictive data analytics to find and fight fraudsters.

Colvin sailed through her hearing without any dissent. Senators gave Colvin positive endorsements. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) praised her record of working collaboratively with SSA stakeholders.

"Colvin has also made several service improvements," said Wyden. "She's made a strong push to make Social Security information more user-friendly and more accessible to a broader swath of Americans. She has made Social Security work more efficiently with other federal partners. And she has devoted significant time and significant resources to addressing the needs of the many disabled Americans the agency serves."

The committee didn't say when it would vote on Colvin's nomination. If confirmed, Colvin will serve as commissioner until January 2019

Ariel Levin-Waldman is an intern with Federal News Radio

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