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Social Security marks 79th birthday with declining service


Cuts in office hours and staffing lead to longer waits for Social Security service. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Columnist

Social Security has been around long enough to collect old age benefits.

It marked “79 years of public service” Thursday.

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. View Archive

It’s good to celebrate a venerable program that reflects what government should do, making life better for the nation’s elderly, disabled and children since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935.

But it’s also true that during this time of budget cuts, the Social Security Administration's (SSA) service to the public isn’t what it used to be.

A new audit from the agency’s inspector general’s office documents deteriorating service resulting from cuts in staffing and office hours to a government program that all Americans eventually will use, assuming we live long enough.

“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 [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 a field office, which is the primary place for in-person service.

Starting in 2011, SSA cut weekly field office hours from 35 to 27. That eight-hour reduction amounts to one full business day gone for the public, although the workweek for staff members was not reduced. Office hours and the number of employees have dropped, but the number of people seeking services has not. The workload has gone up, while the number of workers has gone down.

“The last few years have been tough,” Nancy Berryhill, SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations, said by telephone.

Yet, the cut in hours actually produced some benefits, according to an inspector general’s survey of field office managers. But 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 wait times and conditions:

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

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

●Fewer hours led to longer lines that sometimes stretched outside the doors of field offices. “At times, visitors waited outside in the rain.”

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents SSA workers, 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,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “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 said in 2012 that it cut office hours while continuing regular hours for employees to “allow them to complete face-to-face interviews and process claims work without incurring the cost of overtime.”

But it doesn’t always work that way, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE’s National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals. With so many people waiting for service when the offices close, much of the time for paperwork is eaten up.

“Instructions to the employees are that everyone who is in the door by 3 o’clock or 12 o’clock on Wednesday, we have to take care of,” Skwierczynski said.

Nonetheless, field office overtime costs have been cut significantly, from $126 million in fiscal year 2010 to $72.6 million in 2013, according to the IG audit.

“We certainly want to provide world-class service or the best possible service for the American public,” Berryhill said.

Workload up, staffing down does not result in world-class service. Best possible maybe, but that's not the same thing.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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