Social Security Workers Feeling Strapped

A report depicts stressed workers and weaker customer service at the Social Security Administration.
A report depicts stressed workers and weaker customer service at the Social Security Administration. (By Dennis Brack -- Bloomberg News)
By Joe Davidson
Thursday, February 12, 2009

Workers at the Social Security Administration are working harder and enjoying it less, while its customers grow ever more frustrated.

That's a major take-away from a recent Government Accountability Office report detailing the negative impact of SSA staff cuts.

One important note: In contrast to a generally bleak assessment of the agency, the report did shine a light on the conscientious federal employees who sometimes sacrifice personal time to boost productivity.

Here are some major points from the report:

Staffing in SSA field offices dropped 4.4 percent from fiscal 2005 to 2008. As you might expect, the amount of work produced also fell, but by significantly less, only 1.3 percent.

One reason overall production fell at a lower rate than staff cutbacks is the employees who remained worked their butts off. The average worker boosted production by almost 3 percent. Managers and staff told GAO investigators "that they often do not have time to take their breaks, including lunch. Some staff told us that they feel they are letting down their colleagues and feel guilty about taking time off, regardless of whether they use credit hours or annual leave."

That's dedication. But it comes at a cost.

The increasing demands on the staff has resulted in higher stress, lower morale and decreasing job satisfaction. And managers suffer from it the most, with 74 percent reporting high stress levels.

SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue put the blame on Congress for not giving the agency enough money.

"Since becoming commissioner, I have repeatedly said we need timely and adequate funding in order to maintain the employee levels we need to serve the American public," he said. "We have been aggressively simplifying processes and embracing new technologies in order to provide better service, but the continuing [budget] resolutions of the past three years have constrained hiring and damaged service delivery."

GAO also credited management initiatives, including shifting work from busy offices and increased automation, for Social Security's increased productivity. The agency hopes to improve public service by moving more of its business online. The number of electronic transactions increased from 2.9 million in 2007 to 3.7 million in 2008.

The push to move more work to the Web site, however, has a downside, according to the American Federation of Government Employees. While the union agrees the agency "has been starved of funding," Witold Skwierczynski, president of the union's Social Security Council, said Astrue has eliminated employee review of Internet applications and said that could result in fraud. He also used the report to blast Astrue, repeating a union call for him to quit.

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