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Social Security Workers Feeling Strapped

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.

Meanwhile, customers continue to suffer.

More than 3 million clients waited over an hour to be served in 2008. About 405,000 waited more than two hours in field offices. From 2002 through 2006, "the average waiting time to first contact for all customers increased by 40 percent," from 15 to more than 20 minutes, the GAO found. At least 51 percent of callers to field offices said at least one previous call was not answered, and the GAO thinks that underestimates the problem.

SSA is trying to improve telephone service with a program that forwards calls at busy field offices to a "teleservice center."

Despite all efforts, field office managers and staffers told the GAO they simply "cannot keep up with their work." The backlog of work is so great that if one person had to do it alone, it would take 1,000 years to finish everything, a SSA official told the accountability office. And that's only field office work. It does not include the buildup of complaints that are being appealed, for example.

Complaints are likely to grow, because staffing shortages have cut into training and mentoring of new employees. Managers responding to a survey by the National Council of Social Security Management Associations "estimated that they would need a staffing increase of 16.7 percent to provide adequate public service," the report says.

As bad as the situation is now, it could soon get worse.

Almost half of the agency's staff will retire by 2016. That same wave of old folks in the general population means retirement and disability claims will jump by 1 million annual claims by 2017.

Here's the scary part: "SSA does not currently have a detailed plan to address future service delivery needs," says the report.

The agency disagrees with that assessment, pointing to its strategic plan, complete with a broad vision and goals. It also uses the annual budget process as part of its planning process.

Not good enough, says the GAO.

Social Security has agreed to develop a single document that consolidates its many planning efforts. It did not agree, however, to establish field office standards on customer wait times, either in the office and on the phone.

So if you fall asleep waiting to be served, take comfort in knowing your inconvenience doesn't violate SSA standards.

You can find the GAO report here: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0924.pdf.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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