The Social Security Administration plans to close its Arlington field office and one of its Baltimore locations in June, part of a series of shutdowns across the country that activists and political leaders say is causing major difficulties for the elderly, people with disabilities and other beneficiaries.
The agency has closed about 125 of its approximately 1,250 offices since 2000 — a 10 percent reduction, part of what officials describe as a shift to greater use of online services in an era of budget constraints and a growing population of senior citizens.
In addition, all 533 Social Security Administration “contact sites” — locations that serve remote, rural populations on a weekly or monthly basis — have closed, said leaders of the union that represents Social Security employees.
The most recent closures, which have not been publicly announced, come on the heels of the shutdown of offices in Milwaukee and Chicago in the past year, which elected officials also protested to no avail. An SSA spokeswoman attributed the Arlington closure to an expiring lease and an inability to find space nearby — an explanation that elected officials in Virginia dispute.
“Closing the Arlington office is a shortsighted way to cut costs, and will inflict hardship on people least able to cope with it,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said. He said he is asking the Social Security Administration’s inspector general to investigate whether the agency complied with requirements for public notice and community feedback before field offices were shuttered.
At a noisy rally Thursday under a hot noontime sun, about four dozen people — including Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey (D) — protested the impending closure outside the office at 1401 Wilson Blvd., which is an easy walk from the Rosslyn Metro station.
“I don’t have a car,” said Arlington resident Susan Landfield, 65. “I use public transit and it’s about two hours” to get to the next-nearest office, on Edsall Road in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County.
Cecile Heatley, 75, warned Landfield that the commute may not be the worst of it. Heatley said she went to the Edsall Road office in 2014, after her husband died, and had to wait three hours — standing the whole time because all the waiting room chairs were occupied.
“I’m very, very upset that they are closing this office. It’s an imposition,” said the McLean resident. “That drive to Edsall is a long drive for me — I don’t drive that much anymore.”
Social Security Administration spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the General Services Administration, which handles federal office leases, has been “unable to find suitable replacement space” in Arlington and will have to close the office because of an expiring lease.
The block where the office building is located is slated for redevelopment, but plans are on hold for the next two years, according to what the owners, Monday Properties, told the Arlington County Board a year ago. A spokeswoman for the company would not comment about its plans Friday.
Opponents of the office closure expressed skepticism that the GSA could not find adequate space to lease in Rosslyn, which had a 24.7 percent commercial vacancy rate in the first quarter of 2018.
“It pains me to say, but office space is not that expensive in Rosslyn at this point,” Dorsey told the crowd Thursday.
The 25,000 residents who use the Arlington office each year can go online to do much of their business or go to any other Social Security office, Tiggemann said. In addition to the Edsall Road office, there is one on Waples Mill Road in Fairfax County and three in Washington, although residents said all are difficult to reach by public transit and are often crowded.
In a letter they sent last week to Nancy A. Berryhill, the SSA’s deputy commissioner of operations, six Democratic state lawmakers who represent Arlington said the Edsall Road office “is much less accessible to Arlington residents, and already serves large constituencies in Alexandria and Fairfax.”
“Those with the most complicated cases and greatest need often benefit from in-person services,” said the letter, signed by Dels. Alfonso Lopez, Mark Levine and Patrick Hope and Sens. Adam Ebbin, Barbara Favola and Janet Howell. “Many of these individuals are also among the least mobile and the most dependent on public transportation.”
A spokeswoman for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who represents the Hampden neighborhood in Baltimore where another office is slated for closure, said he and other Maryland lawmakers are working on the matter as well.
The number of Social Security office workers has dropped by 3,500 since 2010, and under the funding level proposed by the Trump administration, another 1,000 jobs would be lost, said Max Richtman, chief executive of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a Washington-based advocacy group. Congress cut the agency’s operating budget every year from 2010 to 2017, before increasing it this year, he said. But with 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, the demand for Social Security services is not going away.
“Despite the recent funding boost, SSA continues to close field offices, primarily in urban neighborhoods,” Richtman said.
In Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett (D), who served in Congress from 1993 to 2003, said he still can’t make sense of Social Security’s sudden decision early this year to close the only field office in the city’s heavily Hispanic and low-income south side.
“It’s really quite baffling to us,” Barrett said. The agency told him it wasn’t an economic issue. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the regional Social Security commissioner told Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), who represents the area, that building maintenance and neighborhood crime were concerns. The city then offered space in a new public library a few blocks away, located on bus routes with ample parking.
Barrett said the GSA showed no interest in working with the city. It’s the first time in his 25 years as a public official that he has seen such an uproar over a federal office closing, he said.
Richtman said that in town meetings his group has organized throughout the country, Social Security beneficiaries routinely complain about understaffing at offices and long waits for service.
To prove it to Congress, he dialed Social Security’s 800 number as he waited to start his testimony before a House Ways and Means subcommittee on March 7. Ninety minutes later, he was still on hold.