“The IG’s report is not surprising to us,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, AARP’s director of economic security. “We do hear from members … and our own loved ones. We hear from everyone that this is increasingly becoming an issue.”
Consider these telling statistics from the IG’s report: “for all regions, the number of field office visitors who waited longer than 1 hour for service increased from 2.3 million in FY 2010 to 4.5 million in FY 2015 – a 95 percent increase.”
Social Security officials acknowledge the bad service.
“Our service budget has been underfunded since FY 2010,” an agency statement said. “The number of Social Security beneficiaries and Supplemental Security Income recipients has already risen by 12 percent since 2010, resulting in service deterioration since we simultaneously have had less funding to serve them. … Additionally, Social Security’s enacted budgets for service have not kept pace with inflation.”
Social Security affects almost everyone’s life, or will. Nearly 41 million people visited some 1,220 SSA field offices employing about 28,000 employees in fiscal 2015.
For Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Social Security Council, it comes down to a simple mathematical equation: “We have fewer staff to do more work.”
Although the number of visitors is falling, field office work is increasing because staffers also handle online and telephone inquiries. “Over 59 million retirees, disabled workers, survivors, and their families receive these benefits each year — a number that has grown by 6 million in just the past five years,” according to a June report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The employees process Social Security number applications, determine benefit eligibility, conduct reviews regarding payment, update records and answer questions. In a cost-saving measure, SSA started cutting field office hours in 2011, first by 30 minutes that year, then by an hour in 2012. There were other changes in the hours open, but the net result was four fewer office hours each week.
“When people need help getting their benefits, they should be able to visit their local office and receive timely help,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s not acceptable to wait more than an hour for help. I am glad to have put money in the checkbook in fiscal year 2015 to help field offices stay open four hours longer each week.”
While office time shrank, so did the number of employees, by about 5 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2015. The number of visitors also fell during that period, by almost 5 million.
But that drop in visitors was not followed by a drop in wait times for those who continued to go to the field offices.
To reduce wait times in the field, Christopher Detzler, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said “Congress needs to enact year-to-year funding that will cover inflationary expenses, allow for hiring that keeps up with both attrition and increased workloads, and allow the agency to invest in IT modernization that will make processing work more efficient.”
The field offices were once “lauded for their excellent service,” but budget cuts forced a hiring freeze and that contributed to a sharp drop in service, according to the center’s report. “Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks,” it said. “By 2015, fewer than half could.”