Federal Employees News Digest
SSA cuts, closures draw fire
- By FEND Staff
- Jun 23, 2014
The Social Security Administration is shaping up as a ground zero test case for how many budget cuts, staff reductions and office closures an agency can tolerate before its mission is compromised.
Last week, union representatives and other experts held forth on those cutbacks at the agency at a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing titled “Reduction in face-to-face services at the Social Security Administration.”
Since 2010, SSA has closed 64 out of its more than 1,200 field offices—a significant decrease, especially for an agency that is beginning to deal with a deluge of retirements from the larger-than-normal bulge of aging Baby Boomers. The agency has also slashed hours—down by the equivalent of a day per week—and has closed altogether 533 mobile offices.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member on the committee, pointed out that in her state one in four residents is served by SSA—by a grand total of eight offices offering face-to-face services, statewide.
Collins expressed doubts about whether office cutbacks are appropriate for an aging population, many of whom are ill-prepared to handle such matters over the phone or online—doubts echoed by other experts and lawmakers at the hearing. Collins was especially tough on SSA’s longer-term plans.
“I was especially troubled to learn of a draft strategic plan prepared for the SSA by the National Academy of Public Administrators, called ‘Vision 2025,’” Collins said. “The plan … proposes that the SSA shift from face-to-face services to online systems as the primary means of serving beneficiaries over the next 11 years. This is completely unrealistic.”
Collins noted that millions of seniors are not only “unaccustomed” to using the Internet for such matters, but a sizeable portion lack access to the web.
“Like so many federal agencies, Congress has in recent years asked the Social Security Administration to do more with less,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), committee chairman, said. Nelson pointed out that 11,000 SSA employees have been cut in recent years.
What Nelson attacked most vehemently was what a closer investigation has revealed: Deep cuts that already would be damaging are made much worse because they are effected with no local input.
“The Social Security Administration is not talking to the people on the ground in these communities—including field office managers, employees and other stakeholders, until [after] it makes a decision,” Nelson said at the hearing.
Union assails plans
The American Federation of Government Employees, representing thousands of staff at SSA, offered criticism of various aspects of the agency’s management of cuts at the hearing—especially of personnel reductions.
“The American Federation of Government Employees council representing more than 22,000 employees at the Social Security Administration has detailed the customer service debacle the agency envisions for the year 2025, a plan that hurts seniors, disabled and low-income Americans,” the union declared in a statement, joining Collins and Nelson in slamming Vision 2025.
“The cornerstone of the Vision 2025 plan is the MySSA website, which would replace face-to-face customer service,” Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE's National Council of Social Security Field Office Operations Locals, said in testimony. “But, according to SSA, fully one-third of the people attempting to access the website fail to successfully register.”
Skwierczynski added that the reduction of staff has already resulted in “poor customer experience,” and that the company contracted to handle security for the website has been “caught selling more than 200 million accounts” to an alleged identity theft ring. He also noted that according to the SSA IG, there have been over 37,000 reports of “questionable changes” being made to online accounts.
“Only through the work of a trained and experienced field office employee, can beneficiaries be assured their benefits will be accurately determined and appropriate for the individual circumstances of each beneficiary,” said Skwierczynski. “That’s the major benefit of a face-to-face or telephone interview with a trained SSA claims representative. Reducing or eliminating this option will result in many claimants losing money due to uninformed choices.”
“It’s hard now for people to get appointments,” Russell F. Settle, a former professor of economics at the University of Delaware and an advisor on Social Security, told FEND. “It’s becoming harder with offices shutting down.”
“I just talked to a person who was trying to set up an appointment this week with a SSA representative in her area—and the earliest she could get will be over a month from now. This is basic; she just wants a Q&A about starting benefits,” Settle offered as an example.
“It can be a problem, and we have clients who are not very computer-literate, and so that can be an issue,” Settle told FEND. “We just have people who go to the Social Security website and who come away confused by it all. The website tries to do so much, for so many different types of clients that Social Security has, it is hard to navigate for some.”
Settle, unlike SSA, focuses on retiree and spousal benefits, and does not attempt to advise on disability, Medicare, or other pieces of the agency’s mission—“they have to focus on so many different areas,” he said.
Settle, who is a partner at a private-sector Social Security advice firm, Social Security Choices, said he and his partners are not opposed to SSA handling more services via the web—it’s just that SSA must improve some of its present staff capabilities, too.
“There can be some advantages to online—if it’s done right,” Settle said. “A few of our clients have had bad experiences going to the local office and getting bad advice.”
“But,“ Settle noted, “there’s another side to the coin. It’s really our impression that a significant fraction of the representatives are poorly trained—but it isn’t really their fault.”
“Honestly, the big problem here is Congress,” Settle told FEND, echoing what the unions and many other experts have said. “They’re not willing to fund these programs sufficiently to provide proper services to the public.”
Other experts and activists added their weight to forces seeking to turn back the closures. The Alliance for Retired Americans and another organization, Social Security Works, presented Congress with a petition with over 95,000 signatures against the closures.
“Americans came together to create the Social Security system to provide a basic, reliable foundation for retirement and disability,” Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said in a statement. “Closing field offices and making it more difficult to access benefits information is an attempt to dismantle that foundation. It’s time to stop it.”
See more on the hearing at: www.aging.senate.gov/hearings/reduction-in-face-to-face-services-at-the-social-security-administration.