Union objects to short Social Security hours

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 9, 2012

The union representing Social Security Administration workers objects to the agency’s plan to save money by cutting back on the hours its offices are open to the public.

Beginning Nov. 19, the SSA will close field offices 30 minutes earlier. And starting in January, field offices will close at noon on Wednesdays.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“These changes will allow field office employees, who will continue to work their regular hours, to complete interviews and claims work without using overtime,” said an Oct. 3 message, supplied by the union, to employees from Mary Glenn-Croft, SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations.

The earlier closing, previously reported by the Federal Times, comes on top of another 30-minute cut last year from the hours that field offices are open to the public.

Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, part of the American Federation of Government Employees, sent a letter to the SSA demanding “to bargain over the impact and implementation of the Agency’s decision to shorten the hours field office employees interview the public.”

The letter said that “the Union disagrees with the Agency’s position that most services do not require a field office visit and can be done on the Internet or by the 800 Number. For instance, January historically starts the busy season for the enumeration workload.”

Fewer open hours for the public, union officials say, does not mean less work for the workers.

“In addition to the difficulties reduced hours create for the public, they will add to the burden on already overworked employees as the agency has no plans to reduce the workload or grant overtime pay,” Skwierczynski said. “It will just mean more work in less hours.”

“The workload associated with dealing with walk-ins will be reduced,” he added, “but lots of other work still has to be done. Many applications require follow-up and additional inquiries, and this time and workload are not being reduced and no overtime will be paid.”

Mark Hinkle, an SSA spokesman, said that the office-hour changes are necessary because “we are operating on significantly less funding than either the agency or President Obama requested.”

The union also complained that the SSA is violating the law with its decision to stop mailing paper statements informing people about their accounts.

“Due to the current budget situation we have suspended mailing paper Statements,” Hinkle said via e-mail. “People aged 18 and older can access their Social Security Statement online at www.socialsecurity
.
gov/mystatement. Individuals also may get an estimate of their retirement benefit by using the online Retirement Estimator at www.socialsecurity.gov/
estimator
.”

“As the Department of Justice and the [Government Accountability Office] have recognized repeatedly in the past,” he added, “an agency head has the authority to curtail or discontinue programs and activities, including those required by statute, in order to avoid exhaustion of agency funds.”

Buying better

Uncle Sam could save lots of money if he could learn to be a better buyer.

That’s the bottom line of a GAO report that says “strategic sourcing . . . could save billions in annual procurement costs.”

“Strategic sourcing” is government-speak for planning purchases to save money.

Think of buying in bulk.

Of course, it gets more complicated than clipping coupons to load up on toilet paper. Sam spends billions and billions on goods and services spread across many agencies.

But he could save a bundle if he shopped smarter.

“Agencies act more like many unrelated medium-sized businesses and often rely on hundreds of separate contracts for many commonly used items, with prices that vary widely,” the report says.

Because its operations are so decentralized, “the federal government is not fully leveraging its aggregate buying power” to get the best terms and prices for purchases, according to the GAO.

For example, the Defense, Homeland Security, Energy and Veterans Affairs departments accounted for 80 percent of the government’s $537 billion in procurement spending last year. Just 5 percent of that was managed through a spending strategy. The resulting savings were minuscule.

“This percentage of managed spending and savings is very low compared to leading companies,” which strategically “manage about 90 percent of their procurement spending and achieve savings of 10 to 20 percent of total procurements annually,” the GAO reported.

Office supplies are one example of a procurement area where money could be saved with greater cooperation and coordination among and within agencies. But more sophisticated things like engineering services and technical and administrative support also could benefit from strategic buying, according to Bill Russell, an assistant director in the GAO’s office of acquisitions and sourcing management.

“It’s all about leveraging buying power,” said Cristina Chaplain, director of the GAO office.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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