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Federal Diary: At SSA, growing workloads are affecting customer service

By Federal Diary
Friday, April 16, 2010; B03

If you work in an agency where the number of employees has increased a little bit while the amount of work has jumped a lot, there are going to be some unhappy campers among the staff and the customers.

That's the situation at the Social Security Administration, according to several witnesses at a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing Thursday.

But one witness had a different opinion, demonstrating the old maxim that where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit. If you sit in the boss's office, as does SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, you can paint a considerably more optimistic view of the agency's operations than employees and independent evaluators.

How SSA relates to its customers is important, said Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), acting chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, because "this may be the most important encounter people have with the federal government during their lifetime."

Barbara D. Bovbjerg, managing director of education, workforce and income security issues for the Government Accountability Office, set the stage with her testimony, saying too much work for too few employees results in poor performance.

Despite some increase in SSA staffing and greater use of automation by the agency, "rapidly rising workloads have adversely affected customer service and the quality of some work," she said.

The Social Security Administration set a record with more than 45 million people visiting its 1,300 field offices last year. Since January 2009, "field office staff has increased slightly," said Bovbjerg, but apparently not enough.

"With the recent economic downturn, field offices are facing more pressure than ever to meet service delivery needs, and soon baby boomer retirements will stretch SSA field office staff even further," she said.

The record number of visitors to Social Security offices brought a record amount of work. The number of SSA "claim receipts" rose from about 9 million to about 11 million from 2005 through 2009, according to a GAO analysis.

The SSA employees are doing their part, with their productivity increasing at a greater rate than staffing levels during that period. But, again, that's not enough.

Bovbjerg cited a February survey by the National Council of Social Security Management Associations that said 71 percent of field office managers think they need at least three more workers.

That's borne out by the long waits customers experience, either in waiting rooms or on the phone.

In 2009, 58 percent of customers surveyed by SSA said they got a busy signal or a recording saying lines were busy when they called field offices. "Because SSA based its results only on customers who were ultimately able to get through to the field offices, the actual percentage of customers that had unanswered calls was likely higher," Bovbjerg's report said.

Astrue acknowledged that SSA service was hurt by inadequate funding before the Obama administration took office. But he added that surveys indicate that customer satisfaction with SSA is high, that telephone calls were answered 25 percent more quickly in 2009 than the year before and that wait times in field offices dropped 15 percent from the first six months of fiscal 2009 to the same period in fiscal 2010.

"I am proud that we are significantly improving the service we deliver to the American people," he said.

Billie Armenta, manager of the Social Security office in downtown Phoenix, had a different take. She told the panel that "front-line feedback from our busiest individual offices indicates that some have seen their visitor traffic double from past years, leaving them with standing room only in the lobby for much of the day."

Armenta, who also is secretary of the management associations, added: "As in-office visitors increase in already busy offices, there has also been an increase in the number of reported security incidents. Tensions escalate when visitors are in crowded reception areas, and many become frustrated because of the extensive wait to be served."

That kind of work environment produces great stress, representative of the American Federation of Government Employees told the panel. Daniel Woosley is a social insurance specialist in the Louisville office and serves as a SWAT team reserve police officer in his county's sheriff's department.

"Working in the Louisville West [SSA] office is incredibly stressful," said Woosley, who also is executive vice president of AFGE Local 3984. "I've made statements in the past that I feel less stress while working with the SWAT team -- and having weapons pointed at me by perpetrators -- than I do going into the Social Security office every day."

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