SSA office closure plan examined at hearing

The union that represents thousands of Social Security Administration employees used a Senate hearing to push back against an agency plan to replace most customer face-to-face contact with online service in what the union calls an impending "customer service debacle."

“In our view, a plan that embraces both the field offices and the Internet and allows beneficiaries to choose the way they interact with the program should be the consensus goal,” stated Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council of Social Security Field Office Operations Locals.

Skwierczynski detailed his union's objections to the plan in testimony submitted to the Senate Special Committee on Aging for a June 18 hearing held to examine the issue.

SSA's plan to close down offices and use online customer service at the MySSA website to serve nearly all beneficiaries is the core an SSA plan called Vision 2025, which would kick in gradually over the next 11 years.

"Does this strategy make sense?" Skwierczynski asked. "The union says no, the SSA managers association says no, but to date, the policy remains unexamined by Congress and unexplained by SSA. In fact, until the recent release of the draft report by the National Association of Public Administration, neither the Congress nor the public was even aware of SSA’s vision for the program over the next 11 years. ... Government agencies should not be allowed to engage in such a fundamental change in how they operate without input and concurrence from effected citizenry."

According to the union, since 2010, SSA has closed 73 field offices, eliminated all 500 of its rural contact stations, cut field office hours by 90 minutes a day and 4 1/2 hours on Wednesdays, and cut 11,000 field office staff.

The union leader claimed that SSA decisions on service delivery in recent years have caused an "erosion" of the agency's reputation for good customer service.

"Today, clients encounter real difficulties obtaining their service of choice," he said.

The average wait time to speak to an agent on calls to an SSA toll-free number is 26 minutes, he said, and longer during peak hours; waits also are long at SSA offices, with 50 offices recording average wait times of more than an hour, plus any time customers may have waited to register with an office's automated intake program.

Even when claimants speak to a service representative in an office, SSA‘s policy is to require staff to direct claimants to self-help computers where they exist, Skwierczynski said.

"Customers do not travel to a Social Security office to use a computer," he said. "They can do that in their homes. Forcing, coercing or offering them a computer option when they came to the office for face-to-face service is frustrating to the customer and certainly does not constitute good public service."

He also cited other potential problems with shifting customer service to an online system, including lack of online access in rural areas, unfamiliarity with computers and the increased potential for identity theft and fraud.

Moreover, Skwierczynski said, many Americans simply require face-to-face contact with customer service representatives to properly file claims, get answers to complex questions, and obtain commonly required forms.

A recent survey of SSA employees showed that 55 percent of Internet claims required re-contact with the filer due to erroneous or missing information, according to Skwierczynski. Employees said initial online disability claims, which are longer than 100 screens, are even worse.

Skwierczynski also claimed SSA launched "its most aggressive attack on field offices" to date when it announced that customers will no longer be able to use field offices to get Social Security number printouts—known as "numi-lites"—as of Aug. 1, or obtain  benefit verification statements as of Oct. 1.

"For the first time, beneficiaries needing these forms—and last year 11 million people came into a field office for one or the other—will be required to use other methods to obtain this vital information," he said. "Those desiring benefit verification will be required to either obtain it through the two-year-old SSA Internet portal called MySSA or to make a request through the 800 number and wait seven to 10 days for the verification in the mail."

Skwierczynski  said about 1 million numi-lites were issued by field offices last year for job applicants and requested by employers.

"If those people are forced to wait a week to get an actual card, the job will most likely have gone to the next person in line," he said.

At the hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in her opening statement expressed concern over a "lack of transparency" in SSA's process for closing offices or reducing hours.

"The 2014  Appropriations Omnibus directed the SSA to report its policies and procedures for closing and consolidating field offices, and the SSA submitted a report last month listing six major factors it claims to examine in making its decisions," she said. "I am troubled by the fact that, in reviewing information about recent field office closures, our committee staff was unable to confirm that the SSA had followed the procedures it claims to have in place. Moreover, the SSA does not appear to seek out allow public input until after a decision to close an office has been made—essentially presenting the local community with a 'fait accompli.' This must change."

Reader comments

Mon, Jun 23, 2014

The public wants small government then they better be prepared for small services. Hello, would you believe not everybody has a computer!

Thu, Jun 19, 2014 PAP TX

It is invalid for SSA or any government agency to assume that every household has a computer and internet access. Additionally, it is wrong to assume the customer even knows how to use the computer. My aging mother has become frustrated with having to use hers as she forgets the steps and various passwords she previously established. It is unfair for any goverm=nment entity to deny access to the public, to a human point of contact, simply because they assume (ass-u-me) that since they are capable of using a computer and internet that all others are too!!

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