Protect Social Security customer service

Workers’ Correspondence

We thought the push to privatize Social Security was dead. Failing to privatize Social Security, the administration has slashed the agency’s budget. These tactics ensure that the next time we have to fight to save Social Security, the public’s view of the Social Security Administration (SSA) might not be so favorable.

Agency employees lost to attrition are not replaced. Agency staffing is at levels lower than in the 1970s even though disability and retirement claims have risen and hearing case backlogs have increased dramatically.

SSA is being handed new workloads (Medicare subsidy programs, rulings appeals, review of evidentiary requirements for Social Security cards required by Homeland Security, and now immigration work verifications).

Customer service is no longer the “world class” service the public was accustomed to. One person now handles programs that used to require two or more representatives. The chance for error increases as the workers deal with speedup.

Employees are rushed off the phones by management, which leads to insufficient (even incorrect) information being provided to callers.

Internet filing is another potential customer nightmare.

Don’t worry, though. The public can go online and take care of themselves.

The claims representatives have gone through months of training in order to properly advise customers of their filing rights and laws, but now the public, (with no training) can figure out their own “non-covered earnings years” and muddle through their own “annual earnings test.”

Privacy and fraud on the Internet? Don’t worry, they don’t suspect that anyone other than the proper applicant will file, even when we know another party might have all of our personal identification information. Internet filing, in most cases, will require no proof of identity, age or citizenship.

They say that an agency employee can have contact with these claimants if need be. As it is there are big delays in re-contacting employees and it can be expected that internet contacts will take a back seat to the crushing load of in-office activity.

If going online isn’t an option, the customer can always pay a third party company to complete the forms SSA should be handling. These aren’t the attorneys that handle the appeals; they are companies that have set up “for profit” businesses to help in filing claims.

Long-time employees who used to be able to provide top-notch service to the public are frustrated with the agency. Employees take pride in their work and value and care for their customers. Employees are in a state of despair, knowing there are not enough people on the job to take care of our elderly, disabled or poor customers.

More employees are reporting stress-related illnesses than ever before due to the environment.

SSA is also closing offices across the country. The commissioner states that only urban offices with 15 or fewer employees will be looked at for closure. However rural offices have been closed, forcing the public to travel more than 70 miles for service.

Office closings are described as consolidation and called cost-efficient. Many of the offices with less than 15 employees used to have more, but due to non-replacement of departed employees they have fallen below 15. When the offices are consolidated, the amount of work to be done is consolidated with another office even though the members of people served don’t decrease.

SSA needs to be taken off budget in order to be able to cover the reasonable expenses necessary for the public to be served.

A bill has been introduced by Rep. B. Higgins (D-N.Y.), the Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act, HR 5110, which will:

• require SSA to provide Congress a nonpartisan, detailed yearly budget estimate; the budget estimate would include yearly statistics of the number of cases pending at hearing offices, the rate at which the case backlogs are increasing or decreasing, the average length of time it takes for claims to be administered and staffing level trends at offices over time;

• prohibit SSA from closing or limiting hours at local offices without providing Congress with at least six months notice and thoughtful justifications for closure;

• require SSA to inform Congress of changes to how it staffs offices at least three months before a proposed change could be implemented.

This important legislation will ensure that customer service is at a level that citizens deserve. We are asking for co-sponsors of the bill. Please contact your representative for support of this legislation.

Darlene Tinsley is secretary-treasurer of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3448, Willoughby, Ohio