When Jim Sauer read the letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA) in October 2021, he was confused. Because he demanded benefits a year after his full retirement age, he expected larger payments than what the SSA said he would receive. So Sauer called the Social Security office near his home in Fairfield Township, Ohio, to resolve the issue. But after 12 conversations with local SSA customer service representatives and two calls to the agency’s national call center, Sauer remained not only amazed but also frustrated.
“It’s not just the problems themselves,” says Sauer, a former career employee at a Fortune 500 company that worked in international finance. “It’s when you call you wait for teams forever. And when you finally get hold of someone, they seem to just not care to help you and are extremely unqualified to answer your questions or take you to where you are. can get answers. ” ,
Although there is no hard data on SSA service complaints, SSA releases call waiting data. In fiscal year 2011, a person attempting to contact Social Security by telephone had to wait three minutes to be contacted by a representative; in the financial year 2020, the average waiting time was 16 minutes. The delays were worse in 2018, with a caller waiting an average of 24 minutes to talk to someone.
As for complaints, the anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Nationally syndicated columnist Tom Margenau, former director of the Social Security Administration’s public information office, wrote on the subject last August, noting that “almost every day I hear from readers who have been misled by an SSA representative.” Another popular money columnist, Liz Weston, also recently reported on older Americans’ frustrations over SSA service. And AARP routinely hears complaints from members about their difficulties in getting help from the agency.
COVID-19, which led to SSA temporarily close its 1,200 field offices, does not help anything. That pandemic has exacerbated previously existing customer service challenges, including conflicting advice and long waits, says Joel Eskovitz, Director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “You have [28,000] people who work remotely, ”adds Mary Beth Franklin, a certified financial planner and author Maximizing pension benefits from social security. “You have to ask: How good are their computer systems, and how good are the connections?” (The 1,200 field offices may reopen this spring. “We expect the field offices to restore increased personal service to the public without an agreement in early April,” a SSA spokesman said in January.)
According to SSA, a reduction in telephone waiting times since 2018 indicates an improvement in the service. But with around 10,000 boomers reaching retirement age every day, the workload of customer service staff will only increase. Is the agency equipped to handle it?
Less money, less staff ,
As with most things, customer service issues are largely tied to money. Since 2010, SSA’s operating budget – set annually by Congress – has fallen by 13 percent and its staff by 12 percent, while the number of social security recipients has risen 22 percent, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. ,
“It’s a customer service agency, and you need money for it,” said Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at CBPP who authored the analysis (and who worked at SSA for eight years). “The more people you have to accept claims and answer questions, the faster and more accurately it gets done. The staffing has dropped exactly as much as the funding, because that’s where the money goes.”
In 2010, the SSA had over 67,000 full-time employees. In 2021, there were fewer than 59,000. An SSA spokesman noted that the agency “experienced many years in which we received less than the annual president’s budget request.” SSA has approved around 6,000 jobs in fiscal year 2021 for its “frontline components”, but having enough warm bodies is only part of the solution. Staff need extensive training to decipher the Agency’s highly complex rules and regulations and to entice accurate results from its outdated computer systems, which in some cases are more than 35 years old. ,
New employees typically receive four to six months of training, including peer mentoring, which “dampens the loss of institutional knowledge” when experienced employees leave, according to the SSA spokesman. But loss of institutional knowledge can still be a looming problem. The agency expects that about a third of SSA employees – more than 21,000 people – will retire by 2025.
“They’re doing the best they can,” Franklin says. “[But] it’s a mess.” ,