Personal finance

Social Security is in the ‘worst public service crisis in memory,’ labor union says. What it may take for services to improve

The Social Security Administration office in Brownsville, Texas.
Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

Long wait times for beneficiaries seeking help from the Social Security Administration have become more common since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, even prompting a congressional hearing in 2022 to address the issue.

Beneficiaries who call the agency’s toll-free number may face hold times of more than 30 minutes, experts said Monday during a panel hosted by the American Federation of Government Employees, or AFGE, a union representing more than 40,000 Social Security Administration employees.

Long lines and shortened hours are common at many of the agency’s field offices, where beneficiaries may seek in-person assistance, the union said. Last year, the agency, in response to lawmakers, outlined steps it planned to take to address those waits.

Applicants for disability benefits face waits of more than six months for decisions from the agency, the union said.

The service delays experienced by the program’s approximately 67 million beneficiaries are signs of “an agency in crisis,” according to Rich Couture, AFGE Council 215 president.

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The agency “is in the midst of the worst public service crisis in memory caused by historic levels of employee attrition due to uncompetitive pay and benefits, exceedingly low employee morale, and overwhelming workloads,” Couture said at Monday’s panel.

AFGE leaders said the agency’s diminishing services have come amid funding constraints that have lasted for more than a decade.

In response, the Social Security Administration said it is making hiring a “critical focus for the entire agency,” according to Social Security Administration Press Officer Mark Hinkle.

“Our employees are dedicated to providing timely, accurate and respectful service to the millions of people who turn to use for assistance each year,” Hinkle said.

“Sufficient and sustained funding from Congress is critical to providing quality service,” Hinkle said.

White House funding proposal may not be enough

President Joe Biden has proposed a 10% increase in funding for Social Security with his fiscal 2024 budget to help improve customer service.

The Social Security Administration’s operating budget is is $14.1 billion this fiscal year, a $785 million increase over fiscal year 2022. But that increase is only 55% of the requested increase in Biden’s proposed budget, Hinkle noted.

“Even with incredible efforts from Social Security employees, we need the president’s full [fiscal year] 2024 budget request to improve service,” Hinkle said.

While Biden is calling for $15.5 billion in funding for the agency, AFGE said it needs $2 billion more, or almost $17.5 billion.

The Social Security Administration’s staffing is at the lowest levels in 25 years, according to both the agency and AFGE.

“As a result, the remaining employees are burned out,” said AFGE Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe. “The public is not getting timely services they desperately need.”

AFGE’s surveys show 76% of Social Security staffers say they have overwhelmingly large workloads that prevent them from performing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Meanwhile, 9 out of 10 workers know someone who has left their job due to overwhelming work-related stress.

Poor employee retention is causing public service to deteriorate, LaPointe said. Hiring is down by 50% since 2010, according to LaPointe, while promotions are down by 25%.

“Simply put, other employers offer better pay, benefits, telework and remote work options, upward mobility and support,” LaPointe said.

‘Sufficient staff’ needed to reduce backlogs

The Social Security Administration is using the extra funding in its budget this year to restore staffing in field offices, teleservice centers, processing centers and state disability determination services, according to Hinkle.

The agency onboarded 3,200 new hires through mid-March and continues to make progress, he said.

The Social Security Administration is on track to hire more agency employees than normal this year, with hiring in the first half of fiscal year 2023 already surpassing total hiring in fiscal year 2022, Hinkle said.

Agency attrition has also slowed so far this year, he said.

Thus far in fiscal year 2023, separations are down by more than 25% per month compared to fiscal year 2022. As a result, hiring is outpacing attrition, Hinkle said.

“Our planned hiring efforts for the remainder of this year will significantly increase the size of our agency workforce,” Hinkle said.

To improve services, the agency needs to be able to hire staff, which Biden’s proposed budget increase would support, according to Hinkle.

“We need to have sufficient staff to handle our growing workloads and reduce backlogs,” Hinkle said. “To hire the staff needed, we must have sufficient funding.”

AFGE’s $17.39 billion budget proposal for 2024 would include 56%, or $9.62 billion, for employee salary and benefits; 17%, or $2.92 billion, for state Disability Determination Services; 16%, or $2.75 billion, for rent, equipment, furnishings, security guards and other items; and 11%, or $1.89 billion, for technology.

Beneficiaries deserve a Social Security system that works and that means a fully funded Social Security Administration.
Linda Benesch
communications director at Social Security Works

It would also include $100 million for employee retention pay, $90 million for mailed Social Security statements and $20 million for magnetometers, or metal detectors.

Biden’s budget request of 10% more for the Social Security Administration is the “absolute bare minimum that Congress needs to approve for SSA,” Linda Benesch, communications director at advocacy organization Social Security Works, said Monday.

“Beneficiaries deserve a Social Security system that works and that means a fully funded Social Security Administration,” Benesch said.

The agency would also benefit if Congress authorized the use of some of the money from the agency’s surplus, which totals about $2.8 trillion, Benesch said.

In a report released in September, the Social Security Advisory board, an independent federal government agency, encouraged the Social Security Administration to evaluate the quality and accessibility of its services.

The Social Security Administration is slated to begin a partial renegotiation with AFGE next week after reaching collective bargaining agreements with two other unions, according to Hinkle.

“We have found mutually beneficial solutions to important problems through good faith engagement by both the unions and management,” Hinkle said.

AFGE plans to pursue changes including more competitive pay, to help tackle the service delivery crisis, Couture said.

“Each experienced employee lost to attrition means more claims that go unprocessed, calls that go unanswered, and people who aren’t being served by the system they paid into when they need it,” Couture said.

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