The Washington Post

Social Security clients hurt by staff, office-hour cuts

Doing more with less is a mantra that management likes to hum during tight budget times.

Now the Social Security Administration (SSA) is experiencing the limits of that slogan.

A new audit from the agency’s inspector general’s office reports on deteriorating service flowing from staffing and office-hour cuts to a government program that all Americans eventually will use, assuming we live long enough.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

“Since 2011, SSA’s staff size had decreased by nearly 11,000 employees. According to SSA, overall service suffered,” the inspector general said. “As a result, in FY [fiscal year] 2013, the public waited longer for a decision on their disability claim, to talk to a representative on the National 800-Number, and to schedule an appointment” at the field office.

In 2011 and 2012, SSA cut weekly field office hours from 35 to 27 because of budget cuts. That eight-hour reduction amounts to one full business day gone for the public, though the workweek for staffers was not reduced. Office hours and the number of employees have dropped, but the number of people seeking service has not. Neither has the workload for the remaining employees.

The inspector general surveyed field office managers and found that the list of drawbacks resulting from the cuts was longer than the list of benefits.

Some managers “reported that the reduced public hours generally improved workload processing as well as staff training and morale,” according to the IG. However, they also  “reported drawbacks from the reduced public hours, such as increased wait times, crowded lobbies, and limited appointment availability.”

The report detailed a maddening increase in waits:

— From July 2011 to November 2013, average wait times at field offices more than doubled, from 14.4 minutes to 30.5 minutes.

— Fewer hours led to longer lines, sometimes out the field office doors. “At times, visitors waited outside in the rain.”

— Reduced hours limited the time available for appointments, resulting in clients waiting two months to be seen.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents SSA employees, said the cut in hours literally leaves the public “out in the cold.”

Americans who have earned SSA benefits through a lifetime of work “don’t deserve to be herded in waiting rooms or lined up on the sidewalk just to access the basic services they paid into their entire lives,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. “With tens of millions of Baby Boomers set to retire, Congress needs to cancel sequestration and give Social Security the resources it needs to invest in the staff and facilities necessary to meet the demand. In the meantime, AFGE urges SSA to restore office hours to 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. so beneficiaries are never greeted by an unexpected ‘closed’ sign again.”

SSA officials did not offer an immediate response to the IG report, though the Federal Diary has scheduled an interview with an agency official for late Thursday afternoon.

Read more in the Federal Diary online Thursday evening and in Friday’s print editions of The Washington Post. 

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.



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