Trays of Social Security checks wait to be mailed from a U.S. Treasury facility in Philadelphia. (Bradley C Bower/Associated Press)

The Social Security Administration has imposed a hiring freeze on its headquarters in Woodlawn, Md., and in regional offices, while generally exempting positions involving direct service to the public.

The freeze is one of the first actions by newly confirmed SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul and reflects the approach that President Trump took in imposing a general government-wide freeze on taking office, a freeze that was lifted four months later.

“The Commissioner has stated that his highest priority and commitment would be to improve service to the public,” the agency said in a notice posted on an internal computer network. “His priorities include improving 800-number, hearings, and field office wait times and modernizing our information technology as well as our disability policies. To ensure that agency resources are focused on these commitments, he implemented a hiring freeze on July 31, 2019.”

“Operations workload positions and their respective management and supervisory positions in the Teleservice Centers (TSC), Processing Centers (PC), Area and Field Offices, and State Disability Determination Services are exempt from the hiring freeze,” the notice said.

For the occupations affected, the freeze applies not only to filling vacancies but also to creating positions and extending existing temporary positions or assignments past their end date, among other actions.

Exceptions will be considered, though, and routine promotions, hardship reassignments and certain other career actions will be allowed. Offices are not to hire contractors for “services currently provided by SSA employees unless approved by the Office of Budget.”

The notice said that the goal is to “marshal all resources to improve public service,” suggesting a shift of money and positions to customer service operations. In response to a request for detailed information about that potential, though, the SSA emailed a statement that largely mirrored part of the guidance sent to employees.

The SSA has about 60,000 employees, nearly half of them in some 1,200 field offices nationwide. In part because of a series of hiring freezes dating to 2011, field office staff declined by about 2,000 to just above 27,200 between 2010 and 2017, according to an internal report issued last year.

Despite efforts to encourage the public to use self-help online resources, waiting times for customers increased in all SSA regions during that period before improving slightly in 2017, the report said.

Two unions representing SSA employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, said they are working to assess the potential impact. The NTEU represents employees of SSA’s Office of Hearings Operations, and the AFGE largely represents employees in processing centers, teleservice centers and field offices.