Understaffing Strains Social Security

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Social Security is stressing out.

Staffing at the Social Security Administration will soon be at its lowest level since 1974. The number of disability claims waiting for hearing decisions is at an all-time high.

The drop in staffing and budget constraints have led to crowded waiting rooms and jammed telephone lines at many field offices. For every two field employees who retire or quit, Social Security replaces one.

"It is like a disaster here. We can't do the work we are getting," said Witold Skwierczynski, an officer of the American Federation of Government Employees who specializes in Social Security field operations.

Congress is trying to address the problems. The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that Social Security receive $100 million more than the White House requested, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed a $125 million increase.

President Bush proposed that Social Security, which has about 61,400 employees, receive $9.6 billion for operations in fiscal 2008. That fell short of the $10.44 billion that the agency calculated it would need. Congress does not allow it to dip into the Social Security trust fund for administrative and operating costs.

Richard E. Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said he appreciates that Congress is trying to help. But, he said, the proposed budget still means that Social Security will "be kind of treading water" next year.

Social Security staffing will have declined by 4,000 positions over two years ending Oct. 1, and the proposed congressional funding should allow the agency to hire 1,000 employees in the next year, Warsinskey said.

But the new hires would make only a small dent in the workload. The agency has a huge backlog of disability claims, with some applicants waiting three or four years for decisions, Rep. Michael R. McNulty (D-N.Y.) said during a House floor discussion of Social Security funding.

Employees also have been given extra work by Congress, such as making Medicare subsidy determinations for prescription drugs and imposing tighter requirements for obtaining or replacing Social Security cards.

That is on top of the agency's regular workload. On average, about 850,000 people visit field offices each week, and some wait two to three hours for help. About 68 million phone calls pour into the field offices each year, overwhelming employees in thinly staffed offices, Warsinskey said.

Partly because of budget constraints, Social Security is closing field offices that serve areas with stable or shrinking populations. Offices are closing in California, Connecticut, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania, Skwierczynski said.

Michael J. Astrue, the Social Security commissioner, has said that inadequate funding since 2001 is largely to blame for staffing and workload problems. He recently told Congress that the agency was addressing workload issues, including the disability claims backlog.

The agency's problems could become more serious in the next few years, as millions of baby boomers apply for retirement benefits and file disability claims.

And, Social Security itself has its share of baby boomers nearing retirement. About 41 percent of claims representatives, a key part of the agency's workforce, will be eligible to retire by 2010, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

6 Win Mansfield Fellowships

Six federal employees have been awarded Mike Mansfield Fellowships, a two-year program that includes a year working in Japanese government ministries and agencies.

The 13th group of Mansfield fellows are: Jay Biggs, Commerce Department trade analyst; Cory Hanna, Air Force major; Ken Ishimaru, Energy Department research specialist; Michael D. Panzera, Justice Department lawyer; Jemelyn Tayco, Defense Department Asia Pacific regional specialist; and Anthony Waller, tenant representative at the General Services Administration.

The Mansfield Fellowships were established by Congress in 1994 with the goal of building a cadre of federal officials who have firsthand understanding of U.S.-Japan relations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company