Social Security Administration should stop closing field offices

Social Security Administration should stop closing field offices
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The Social Security Administration (SSA) and Congress are causing undue hardship for Social Security claimants by closing field offices in mostly urban areas. The most recent casualty is the SSA office in Arlington, VA, scheduled to close its doors on June 21st.

The scheduled shuttering of the Arlington office comes on the heels of others in heavily populated urban areas, including in Milwaukee and Chicago during the past year and the announced closing of an SSA field office in Baltimore (also effective this June). Since 2010, SSA has closed more than 60 field offices nationwide and furloughed 3,500 field office employees.

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Yesterday, I joined other seniors’ advocates and labor activists in 90-degree heat to protest the closing of the Arlington office, located in a high-rise office building close to the local Metro station. Protesters carried signs reading, “Keep SSA Open!” and chanting “Social Security, find a way! This office has got to stay!”

 

The Arlington office currently serves some 25,000 claimants every year. Closing Social Security field offices like this one causes undue difficulty for the elderly, disabled and working people who rely on public transportation. The nearest alternate location in Virginia is a 2-hour round trip via subway and bus. When I asked the crowd at the rally (which included retirees who rely on these offices) if this was acceptable, they shouted, “Hell, No!”

According to Witold Skwierczynski of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents Social Security field office workers, SSA is closing offices without following its own stated procedures, which include:

  • Giving Congress and the public notice of a potential closing
  • Analyzing the effect of such closings on transportation to the nearest office
  • Analyzing the impact on SSA employees

So far, SSA has done none of this. In fact, SSA’s Inspector General is currently investigating the agency’s apparent breach of procedure. What’s more, Congress instructed SSA not to close any field offices until the Inspector General’s office completes its inquiry. By continuing to close field offices, Skwierczynski argues that SSA is not following guidelines it received from Congress — as well as its own policies.

Apparently, one of the reasons SSA plans to close the office in Arlington is related to the alleged inability of another government agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), to find acceptable real estate in Arlington. We’ve heard this same excuse offered as the reason offices in other cities, like Chicago, Baltimore and Milwaukee, have to be closed. If GSA, which is the federal government’s real estate agent, can’t find acceptable space for a Social Security office in an area with a 20 percent vacancy rate, then perhaps they should go into a different line of work. Instead of GSA, SSA should be given authority to serve as its own real estate agent.

But another, more likely cause, is the failure of Congress to adequately fund SSA’s administrative budget. From 2010-2017, Congress cut SSA’s administrative budget by 11 percent (adjusted for inflation). In the face of these cutbacks, the agency has struggled to provide adequate service to its customers, who experience long waits in crowded field offices, busy signals and interminable hold times on the 800 phone line and an average wait of nearly two years for hearings on disability claims.

Congress shouldn’t be cutting funds for SSA operations when Social Security’s administrative costs are already paid for by workers’ payroll contributions. As retiree Julian Blair told the crowd at the Arlington rally, “We paid into the system – for benefits and for decent service. How can they treat people this way?”

SSA has been steering claimants toward its online services in order to reduce reliance on brick and mortar offices. But seniors and disabled Americans do not always have full internet access, nor is online claiming necessarily as effective for beneficiaries. In fact, Skwierczynski says that recent analyses indicate that online Social Security claims are often “rife with errors.” “The internet,” he says, “is not the answer.”

The American people seem to agree. In a 2017 poll by Lake Research Partners, the majority of voters said they prefer to communicate with a live person at the Social Security Administration when applying for benefits, replacing a lost Social Security card, or inquiring about their earnings records.

In March, after seven successive years of cuts, Congress gave SSA a much-needed boost in administrative funding, but out of the $480 million increase over 2017 levels, only about $200 million was available for direct public service. Clearly this was not enough to enable SSA to stop curtailing service. With 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day, now is the time to strengthen — not impede — Social Security’s ability to provide services. It’s certainly not the time to be closing field offices.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization which promotes the financial security, health and well being of current and future generations of maturing Americans.