The Social Security Administration pays out $1 trillion in annual benefits to tens of millions of people. Widely regarded as the most popular government program, it doesn’t deserve these plaudits thanks to its customer service.
People who need help from one of Social Security’s 1,230 field offices often find that the phone system isn’t working. Sometimes it automatically disconnects calls after 15 minutes of waiting. Others find that wait times stretch for hours or that the phone system never picks up.
“Original applications and documents get lost. One of our requests went missing and didn’t appear for two years,” said Alison Weir, a lawyer and policy advocate at Greater Hartford Legal Aid in New Haven, Connecticut, during a pathways committee hearing. means of the United States House of Representatives. May 17.
“At the start of the pandemic, the fax machine ran out of paper and the paper was not replaced for months. The performers disappear in the middle of the audience,” Weir said. Between 2008 and 2021, more than 100,000 people died while awaiting decisions on their disability benefits.
Some benefit seekers have asked their elected representatives for help, but even congressional offices say they are struggling to navigate the maze.
Too few employees and too much work
Presenters at the Ways and Means Committee hearing on Social Security customer service issues pointed to a system that has too much work and too few resources. Since 2010, Social Security has acquired 21% additional beneficiaries, whose ranks have increased from 54 million to 65 million. Every day, ten thousand baby boomers become eligible for retirement benefits.
But over the same period, the administration’s budget fell by 14%, after adjusting for inflation. Social Security now has 60,000 workers — its lowest staffing level in 25 years — and has 13% fewer employees available to serve the public than in 2010.
At the height of the pandemic, Social Security closed 67 field offices, shortened the hours it was open to the public at its remaining offices, and delayed updates to its computer and phone systems. As of April 7, almost all of the agency’s field offices are open again, although just over half of its staff are physically present. The others work from home.
More online services are only a partial solution
Social Security offices have a backlog of cases as a result of the pandemic, and outdated systems prevent it from working efficiently, said Peggy Murphy, who is the district manager for four Social Security offices in Montana. . “We need an overhaul.”
Better online access for adults who have internet access would help, witnesses said, pointing out that it is currently not possible to make a full application for disability benefits online. But even with this problem solved, not everyone has or can afford to access the Internet. Yanina Cruz, head of the Hispanic Council on Aging, said 42% of people aged 65 and over don’t have internet access at home, a number often higher among multilingual communities and those with people of color.
Some people will still need help understanding and completing Social Security forms, Cruz said, adding that 70% of adults over 60 have difficulty using printed materials and 80% have difficulty completing forms. forms. Many low-income people only have access to the Internet on a cell phone, and a small screen makes it difficult, if not impossible, to fill out forms. People with limited English skills or an intellectual disability may also need in-person appointments.
An updated phone system, more automation, and better remote scanning and printing capability could help free employees help individual customers. Better remote services would also help. Grace Kim, deputy commissioner for operations at the Social Security Administration, said teleservices have struggled to adhere to rules that require original documents and ink signatures.
Outdated systems also create problems for employees
A lack of modern tools, overly complex procedures and not enough money to hire and train new people have also prevented the agency from coping with its workload. Some employees still don’t feel safe returning to work in person, and teleservice issues are making them less productive than they otherwise would be.
Other employees leave because they feel their workload is too heavy, because the agency is unable to compensate them enough for overtime, or because they are frustrated with the time they need to become effective. Because social security programs are so complex, it takes up to three years for a new worker to become productive. The agency has an overall attrition rate of 10%, but that number reaches 17% in the center 800 numbers.
When workers leave the Social Security Administration, it’s usually voluntary, because firing bad performers requires years of documentation. Hiring freezes and tight budgets also make it difficult to hire new employees, so managers prefer to keep mediocre workers, judging them better than nothing.
Proposed legislation titled “Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust” could address many of these issues, and its 201 co-sponsors hope to bring it to a vote in the near future. But it received a serious blow recently when a watchdog, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, pulled his support after changes to the proposal reduced the number of years that would be added to Social Security solvency from 75 to just four.