We thought the push to privatize Social Security was dead. In the wake of the failure to privatize the Social Security Administration, the administration has slashed staffing by starving the agency of resources through its budget policy. The tactics being used now will ensure that the next time we have to fight to save Social Security, the public’s view of SSA might not be so favorable.

Due to improper funding of SSA’s budget, employees being lost due to attrition are not being replace. Agency staffing is at levels lower than in the 1970s. Disability and retirement claims have risen. Hearing case backlogs have increased dramatically. SSA is being handed new workloads (Medicare subsidy programs, Part B premium appeals, extensive evidentiary requirements for Social Security cards required by Homeland Security, and soon new immigration work verifications).

Customer service is no longer the “world class” service the public was accustomed to. Current SSA representatives are required to be trained in several programs that used to be specialized. One person now handles programs that used to require two or more representatives. These programs require ongoing training and the knowledge must be retained by the rep. This leaves more room for error. Employees are being forced to work faster to get more work done, which results in poor quality work. The perpetual ringing of phones in hope of an answer is commonplace. Employees are rushed off the phones by management, which leads to insufficient (even incorrect) information being provided to the caller.

Internet filing — a potential customer nightmare

Don’t worry, though. The public can go online and take care of their own services. We now have Internet filing. The claims representatives have gone through months of training in order to properly advise the customer of their filing rights and laws, but now the public (with no training) can do it themselves. They can figure out their “non-covered earnings years” and muddle through their “annual earnings test.” Choosing one’s month of election requires training. Later this year the agency will allow the customer to do this. All of the above may disadvantage the customer.

Privacy and fraud on the Internet? Don’t worry, they don’t suspect that anyone other than the proper applicant will file, even if another party has all of someone’s personal identification information. In most cases there will be no need to present documentation for identity, proof of age or citizenship.

An SSA employee can have contact with these claimants if need be. But at the present time there are delays in re-contact, and many times this workload takes a back seat to the in-office traffic and phones. The agency plans on implementing Internet filings that will have no SSA employee involvement.

In order to push their Internet filing plan to the public and SSA employees, the agency has provided statistics on errors that are misleading. The statistics showed a high success rate. These figures were obtained after SSA employees corrected the problems by re-contact with the Internet filers.

Contracting out for profit

Not only is the agency pushing Internet filing, they are now encouraging third-party involvement with disability claims filing. 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 who look to them for help and answers. Even if overtime is offered, there are certain workloads that can only be worked during it and it might not be the workload that will get the check out to that person who has been waiting. More employees are reporting stress-related illnesses than ever before due to the environment.

Closing offices, cutting service

SSA is currently closing offices across the U.S. 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. There are currently more than 600 or the 1,300 offices with 15 or fewer employees.

Office closings are being called consolidation and cost-efficient. Many of the offices with less than 15 employees used to have more, but due to nonreplacement of lost employees they have fallen below 15. When the offices are consolidated the amount of work to be done is consolidated with another office and the members of the public don’t decrease. The same amount of work still has to be handled by an insufficiently staffed office. But now there is only one point of contact for the public.

A bill that needs your support

SSA needs to be taken off budget in order to be able to cover the reasonable administration expenses necessary for the public to receive the service they deserve.

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