For the elderly and disabled who complain about poor Social Security assistance now, these might be the good old days.
President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2019 Social Security Administration (SSA) budget would cut staffing, a recipe for long waits in agency offices and on the telephone for those trying to navigate the often-difficult world of old-age, disability, survivor and Medicare benefits. Retirement and survivor benefits would not be hit.
Declining service is nothing new, but under Trump, there would be fewer federal employees to deal with an increasing number of people of retirement age. His budget request calls for almost 1,000 fewer full-time-equivalent work years in 2019 than this year. A full-time-equivalent work year is the amount of work a person toiling full time would do in one year. The amount of overtime allowed staffers to keep up with demand would be less than a third of that in 2017 and just over half the 2018 estimate.
The advocacy group, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, provides these stats to illustrate the problem: About 10,000 baby boomers hit retirement age every day. The increase in workloads coupled with a decrease in staffing led to a 627-day wait for disability applicants’ hearings in 2017. The three-minute telephone wait that callers had for SSA’s 800 number in 2010 was four times longer last year. Despite SSA attempts to direct traffic to its website, there were 2 million more field office visits in 2016 than 2015. “More than 16,000 visitors were forced to wait more than hour for service each day in August 2017,” the committee said.
Promising to become “more efficient and effective” for the 71 million people who receive monthly benefits, Social Security Administration statements say Trump’s budget “will allow us to support our front line operations, such as our field offices, processing centers, and National 800 Number, by providing some critical hires and expanding our additional service delivery channels and online service options.”
Sure, there will be support, but at what level? The support was too low even before Trump’s proposed 2019 cuts.
At a Senate briefing last month, Julian Blair, a 70-year-old Silver Spring resident, spoke about the hardships that service cuts cause.
“I accompany a 92-year-old neighbor to the Social Security,” Blair said. “He’s not computer literate . . . so I’m going with him. We had to go three times before he could get the service he needs because the lines were so long, and he’s disabled he can’t stand there all day. There was no seats for him.”
He went on to talk about how his daughter “almost gave up and cried because she just could not get the service in a timely manner” for her son’s survivor benefit after his father died. “That’s a shame that should not happen.”
“I have a brother that worked 34 years, became disabled,” Blair added. “It took him two and a half years (to get a claim processed). What happens in that two and a half years? Savings gone, unemployment gone. So real people, this affects for real people.
“But it’s . . . more than just services. To us, it’s a continued effort to dismantle Social Security.”
The administration wants to push more recipients to the internet, saying “most Social Security services do not require a visit to an office” and noting the many things that can be done online. But many elderly, like Blair’s 92-year-old neighbor, don’t do business online. And the availability of web-based services hasn’t prevented long lines at Social Security offices.
Sue Bird, 66, of Wellington, Nevada, told of driving 80 miles to a Social Security office in Reno. When she arrived for a 10 a.m. appointment, she estimated 20 to 30 people were standing outside, waiting to get in. Once she got in, she saw almost 150 waiting inside.
“The room was packed with people,” she said by telephone. “I was shocked.”
Blair doesn’t blame the employees.
“It’s not anyone’s fault who’s working there,” he said. “It’s just busy.”
He’s right. The blame is not on Social Security employees. But it is somebody’s fault. The staffers are too busy, and the waits are too long, because elected leaders aren’t providing enough money for the service the elderly and disabled deserve.
Declaring the Social Security Administration to be “in a dire state,” Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, Council 220, of the American Federation of Government Employees, said “the FY19 budget request would cause further deterioration of service. More calls on the 800 number will result in busy signals and those who got through would have lengthy wait times. It will take longer to get appointments in field offices and walk in customers will wait longer for service and, in many cases, be sent home without obtaining service. SSA processing time for claims and appeals will increase.”
That’s not all that will increase. Expect a rise in staff strain.
“Employees stress levels will increase, and service will suffer,” Skwierczynski added, “since SSA employees will be forced to use short cuts to process claims that will likely disadvantage the public.”
Columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary.