The Social Security Administration pays $ 1 trillion in annual benefits to tens of thousands of people. Widely considered the most popular government program, it does not earn these praises through its customer service.
People who need help from one of Social Security’s 1,230 field offices often find that the telephone system does not work. Sometimes it automatically interrupts calls after 15 minutes in standby mode. Others experience that holding times extend to hours or that the telephone system never picks up.
“Applications and original documents are lost. One of our applications disappeared and did not appear for two years, ”said Alison Weir, a staff attorney and police attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid in New Haven, Connecticut, during a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee on May 17.
“Early in the pandemic, the fax machine ran out of paper and the paper was not replaced for several months. Interpreters disappear in the middle of the hearing,” 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 report that they have trouble getting through the maze.
Too few employees and too much work
Speakers at the hearing on Social Security’s customer service in the Committee on Ways and Funds pointed to a system that has too much work and too few resources. Since 2010, Social Security has acquired 21 percent more recipients, whose ranks have grown from 54 million to 65 million. Ten thousand baby boomers are eligible for retirement benefits every day.
But over the same period, the administration’s budget fell by 14% after adjusting for inflation. Social security now has 60,000 workers – the lowest level of staff in 25 years – and has 13 percent fewer employees available to the public than in 2010.
During the worst pandemic, Social Security closed 67 field offices, shortened the hours the remaining offices were open to the public, and delayed updates of its information technology and telephone systems. As of April 7, almost all of the Agency’s field offices are open again, although only a little more than half of its workforce is physically present. The rest work from home.
Multiple online services are only a partial solution
Social security offices have a backlog of cases in the wake of the pandemic, and outdated systems are preventing it from working effectively through it, said Peggy Murphy, who is the district manager for four social security offices in Montana. “We need an overhaul.”
More online access for adults who have Internet access would be helpful, witnesses said, pointing out that it is not currently possible to fully apply for disability benefits online. But even with that problem solved, not everyone can or can afford Internet access. Yanina Cruz, chair of the Hispanic Council on Aging, said 42 percent of people age 65 and older do not have Internet access at home, a figure that is often higher among multilingual communities and people of color.
Some people will still need help understanding and filling out social security forms, Cruz said, adding that 70% of adults over the age of 60 have difficulty using printed materials and 80% have difficulty filling out forms. Many low-income people only have Internet access on a mobile phone, and a small screen makes it difficult or impossible to fill out forms. People with limited English skills or intellectual disabilities may also need personal appointments.
An updated telephone system, more automation, and better scanning and remote printing capabilities could help free up staff to help individual customers. Better remote services would also help. Grace Kim, deputy commissioner for operations at the Social Security Administration, said telecommunications services have been fighting over rules requiring original documents and ink signatures.
Outdated systems also create problems for employees
Lack of modern tools, overly complex procedures and not enough money to hire and train new people have also kept the agency from coping with its workload. Some employees do not yet feel that it is safe to return to personal work, and teleservice problems make 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 pay them adequately for overtime, or because they are frustrated with how long it takes them to become effective. Because social security programs are so complex, it takes a new employee up to three years to become productive. The agency has a total wear and tear of 10%, but that figure is as high as 17% in the 800-number center.
When workers leave the Social Security Administration, it is usually voluntary because firing bad artists requires years of documentation. Freezing hires and limited budgets also make it difficult to get new employees on board, so managers prefer to keep mediocre employees and rate them better than nothing.
Proposed legislation entitled “Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust,” could improve many of these issues, and its 201 co-sponsors hope to bring it to a vote in the near future. But it was dealt a serious blow recently when a watchdog, the Committee on a Responsible Federal Budget, withdrew its support following amendments to the proposal, the number of years that would be added to Social Security’s solvency will be cut from 75 to just four.