Social Security workers win back pay bid 2,500 to 3,000 Marylanders benefit from federal ruling

April 22, 1992|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Between 2,000 and 2,500 Marylanders employed by the Social Security Administration will collect millions of dollars in back wages after a federal agency ruled they were denied overtime pay for years because they were wrongly classified as administrators.

The ruling made last week by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) follows two years of legal wrangling and affects about 13,800 Social Security workers nationwide, said Diane Witiak of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the workers. The ruling cannot be appealed.

The labor authority, upholding an earlier decision by a federal arbitrator, found that some claims representatives and workers who authorize claims payments are entitled to overtime pay.

The agency and federal Office of Personnel Management asserted that those employees are administrators and therefore are not entitled to overtime. The union held that the workers are involved in the production process, not in administration.

The FLRA rejected the agency's appeal, ruling in favor of the union.

"It'll be millions of dollars, especially for the people in the field," said John Gage, president of AFGE Local 1923 in Woodlawn. "After the budget cuts, they were working a lot of overtime."

Because each worker's overtime must be assessed and documented, employees may not see the fruits of their labors for some time.

"I'd say it's going to be a while,"Mr. Gage said. "On the most optimistic side, it would probably be six months. That's if everyone would cooperate and the thing would go smoothly."

The total disbursement has been estimated at anywhere from $1 million to $7 million, but it would take a "crystal ball" to come up with a more exact figure, said Al Levy, executive vice president of AFGE Local 1923.

Some workers may be entitled to thousands of dollars, while others will get nothing. The amount will vary according to the number of overtime hours worked and the individual's salary level, he said.

Complicating the calculation is the interest owed on each employee's back pay, said AFGE's general counsel, Mark Roth. The interest rate varies with the rate of inflation, he said.

Fortunately, SSA is required to maintain payment and attendance files for each employee, Mr. Levy said, so tallying overtime from years ago should not be an impossible task.

The biggest outstanding question in the grievance is over the statute of limitations, which could go back two, three or six years from the case's filing date in January 1988, AFGE officials said. That issue will be resolved by the arbiter based on his interpretation of competing labor laws, Mr. Levy said.

But while pre-1988 back pay remains up in the air, workers definitely will be reimbursed for all of their overtime worked after January 1988, Mr. Levy said. That money should be available before the statute of limitations issue is resolved, he said.

The union yesterday sent a letter to SSA management requesting a meeting to plan the assessment and disbursement of payments. Labor-management review teams will coordinate logistics under the oversight of an independent arbiter, said AFGE spokeswoman Jeannette Abrams.

The two original grievances were filed by AFGE in the fall of 1987 on behalf of two classes of employees: field office claims representatives and payment service center claims authorizers. In May 1991, federal arbitrator Henry L. Segal ruled in favor of the union, agreeing that the workers were involved in the production and not administrative end of the SSA's business.

The government appealed the decision, resulting in the latest ruling.

Plans are under way to file grievances for other employees who have been denied overtime pay because the government considers them administrators.

RTC Union officials said they filed this case as a test, adding that the decision could have far-ranging implications for any Social Security employee who is Grade 10 or above, which includes tens of thousands of workers. Grade 10 employees earn about $25,000 a year.

"We're now putting in line for arbitration all the other jobs," Mr. Gage said. "If they want to arbitrate, that would be fine. If they want to give up the ghost and start paying overtime, that would be fine too."

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