For Americans who rely on Social Security for disability or retirement benefits, recent revelations about the Social Security Administration brought bad news and more bad news—scores of field offices have been closed, and customer service is therefore deteriorating. Now, Congressional leaders, a government employee union, and citizens are pushing back.
Since 2000, the SSA has closed 125 field offices nationwide, according to Senators Susan Collins of Maine (R) and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania (D), who head up the Senate Special Committee on Aging. One of the offices is the SSA’s Chicago Near Southwest office (1233 W. Adams Street), which closed in August 2017. On its website, the SSA says “the office was vacated due to an expiring lease. All employees of the office relocated to surrounding offices. The General Services Administration [GSA] has been unable to find suitable replacement space in the vicinity. Residents living in the Chicago Metro service area may conduct business at any [of the five other] Social Security office[s].”
In letters to the SSA and GSA Senators Collins and Casey said, “As some 10,000 seniors turn 65 each day and file for Social Security and Medicare, we should be expanding access to services, not reducing access. It is our view that the availability of conveniently located and adequately staffed Social Security field offices is crucial to providing good service to America’s seniors, people with disabilities, and their families,” the senators wrote, “and to maintaining the public’s trust in Social Security, Medicare, and other programs that SSA administers.”
Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union, maintain that the field office closings are prompted by pressure from the White House and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s April 2017 directive for federal agencies to find ways to achieve greater efficiency. Recently about 70 protestors—AFGE union members and members of the public—picketed the Social Security office in Arlington, VA which is scheduled for closure this summer.
“The Trump administration wants to continue to close community offices and push people online,” AFGE National President J. David Cox told Government Executive, a media publication based in Washington, D.C. “But let’s face it, everybody’s not online. Many people on disability making decisions and elections—at what age to draw Social Security, which, once you make an election, is for life—can’t get all the information from a computer. They need human interaction.”
According to a Washington Post report, “service hours at field-office locations have also been cut while wait times have risen and hearing backlogs have grown. That was detailed in an SSA Office of the Inspector General report that examined two regional Social Security hearing offices and found both had ‘high average processing times (APT), had below-average staffing levels, low morale, and issues with telework, claimant representatives, and the quality of the support staff’s work.’”
Similar staffing problems exist at Social Security hearing offices, in which judges hear disability cases. Marilyn Zahm, an Administrative Law Judge Buffalo, New York, who is president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, in an email to the Post argued that, “inadequate staffing is the number one problem; many of the ills cited in the report (such as teleworking causing problems and deficient work products) actually flow from this factor.”
Remember, if you are concerned about these or other issues, you can contact your Congressperson or Senator to let your voice be heard. And most importantly, don’t forget to vote in November!