The Social Security Administration is overhauling its internal anti-discrimination program after federal auditors found that the agency failed to establish an adequate system for handling employee claims.
Auditors from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in May that the Woodlawn-based agency had failed to follow regulations on addressing workplace discrimination complaints, had manipulated data to boost case completion rates and might have allowed managers to interfere in what were supposed to be impartial investigations. Of 2,292 claims processed over a four-year period, not one resulted in a finding of discrimination, they reported.
The agency, which employs 60,000 workers nationwide and 11,000 in Maryland, told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin had ordered an action plan to transform its Equal Employment Opportunity program into a "model program."
Among the changes, she has named a new associate commissioner to head the agency's office of civil rights and equal opportunity. That associate commissioner, Kojuan Almond, will report directly to Colvin, as required by federal regulations.
The agency said it would also increase oversight of its regional Equal Employment Opportunity offices and standardize its complaint process, among other changes.
The changes come as Colvin, nominated by President Barack Obama for a full six-year term, prepares for her as-yet unscheduled Senate confirmation hearing. The period assessed by the auditors ended before Colvin became acting commissioner last year.
"The integrity and effectiveness of our EEO program at Social Security is of paramount concern to acting Commissioner Colvin, so she began making the necessary changes as soon as she learned about and investigated complaints," spokeswoman LaVenia LaVelle said. "Ms. Colvin is committed to address these issues and has set the bar high to establish a model program within SSA."
LaVelle said Colvin had "personally stated to all employees that Social Security will not tolerate any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in our workplace."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who wrote to Colvin in May to express his concerns about the auditors' findings, said Thursday that he was pleased to have been briefed about her plans to address "the unacceptable shortcomings" in the agency's Equal Employment Opportunity program.
Cummings, whose district includes Woodlawn, is the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
"I will be monitoring the agency's progress to ensure it does not tolerate any form of discrimination and can handle any allegations in a timely and fair manner," he said in a statement.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she is glad Colvin is taking action.
"I firmly believe that people should be judged based on their individual skills, competence and unique talents — and nothing else," the Maryland Democrat said. "The failures identified by the EEOC in handling discrimination complaints at the Social Security Administration required swift action and big changes. I know that Carolyn Colvin is personally invested in righting the Social Security Administration's EEO policies."
Union officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
LaVelle said Colvin ordered the changes in response to the commission report and concerns raised by Cummings, Mikulski and Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin.
Commission auditors found that top managers of the agency's Equal Employment Opportunity program had worked previously in the general counsel's office, which defends the agency against discrimination claims.
"We find that a majority of ... employees interviewed expressed concerns about the general counsel's office's involvement during the EEO investigation process and perceived the involvement as a conflict of interest," they wrote. "We continue to note that the investigative process is a non-adversarial fact-finding process."
Auditors also suggested that Social Security managers reviewed and made changes to affidavits by employees in the early stages of investigations. The EEOC said it reviewed testimony that appeared to have changed between the time it was initially given by an employees and then signed.
The agency disputed that claim in its formal response. The report "does not contain any actual evidence supporting the assertion that ... attorneys made substantive changes to managers' affidavits and forced agency managers to change their affidavits," the agency wrote.
Auditors said the agency often missed the target of 180 days from time of receipt to finish an investigation. In the fiscal year that ended in 2012, the agency showed an 82 percent on-time completion rate. But by the next year, that rate had dropped to 40 percent.
Employees interviewed by auditors said the agency sometimes attempted to make those rates look better than they actually were. "Several ... employees stated that when the report of investigation is untimely, some ... managers move the case file to the next fiscal year to look timely, and that they manipulate the data in the ... tracking system," the auditors wrote.
The agency said in its response that it recognized that it has "had challenges with ... timeliness." It did not directly address the allegation that officials had attempted to manipulate completion rates but said the practice, if it ever did occur, ended with a new office director who began in 2012.
"At the very beginning of his tenure in 2012, he told ... staff that if they had been delaying closing cases to make them look timelier or closing investigations even if they were not adequate, they were to stop immediately," the agency said in its response.
LaVelle said Thursday that the changes ordered by Colvin emphasized "increasing communication ... resolving issues to the maximum extent in an expedited manner [and] handling complaints consistent with the established timeframes."
Also Thursday, the Social Security Administration said it would continue to provide benefit verification letters at field offices, reversing an unpopular plan to cut that service.
The agency had announced in February that the documents, which allow beneficiaries as well as employers and government agencies to verify that someone is receiving benefits, would be available online only starting in October. That announcement drew criticism from lawmakers, unions and some members of the public.
"We recognize that some members of the public may require in-person assistance and we will have a presence in local communities," Colvin said in a statement. "We also want to ensure that the public is aware that they can access many of our services without making a trip to a local field office."