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Union, Social Security at odds over long-term vision

A draft memo circulating at the Social Security Administration that suggests the agency could rely on the Internet to deliver most of its services is meeting with strong resistance from a labor union concerned that the idea would lead to closed field offices across the country.

The document, drafted by an independent nonprofit as part of the agency's effort to develop a long-term strategic plan, envisions Social Security using websites "as [a] primary service channel" by 2025, which the writers conclude would ultimately result in a smaller workforce.

Officials at the Woodlawn-based agency say the document is not adopted policy — only a step in a planning process. But union leaders say it has surfaced in the context of federal budget cuts that have already led to reduced hours and the shuttering of some of Social Security's roughly 1,200 field offices.

About 28,000 employees work in those offices, and nearly 180,000 people visit them every day.

"This draft proposal is in fact in sync with what the agency is already doing," said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers in field offices and call centers. "This is very alarming."

Staff members at field offices handle everything from mundane requests for replacement Social Security cards to complicated claims for disability insurance.

The union has been raising concerns for years about the future of the offices, which Skwierczynski and others say are vital because they provide face-to-face contact with beneficiaries and ensure that applications are filled out correctly.

Federal and state agencies have long tried to strike a balance between giving the public quick online access to services while also allowing people to reach a human when they run into trouble.

"Many of these service delivery processes benefit by having intermediaries … particularly for special-needs populations," said Theresa Pardo of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany.

She said that often means bulking up call centers or staff who can engage the public through online chats.

"The challenge is to figure out which services for which populations will in fact increase the citizen experience when moved online," she said.

Pardo said fears that workers who interact with the public would be replaced by the Internet generally haven't been realized — at least not in the public sector. Instead, she said, those workers tend to be reassigned.

Budget cuts have forced the Social Security Administration to close dozens of field offices in recent years and reduce hours at those that remain. In 2012, the agency cut hours again, requiring most to close their doors by 3 p.m. on most days.

Congress requires agencies periodically to develop long-range plans, and Social Security expects to publish its updated vision later this year. The agency contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration to help develop the report.

The nonprofit group created the document to which the unions are reacting. Staff members at the organization did not respond to a request for comment.

"Technology advances allow us to have a significantly smaller and more virtual workforce," the organization wrote in the memo. Those changes mean that the agency's "physical infrastructure [could be] significantly reduced and re-aligned."

The agency has nearly 64,000 employees, including more than 11,000 in Maryland — making it one of the largest federal entities in the state.

A Social Security Administration spokesman said the academy is seeking input from employees and labor, and he stressed that the document doesn't necessarily represent what will be included in the final report. The agency says on its website that the report will be finalized in October.

"NAPA is considering all of this input as it prepares to submit its formal findings to Social Security this summer," the spokesman, William "BJ" Jarrett, said in a statement. "There are no draft plans at this time, and [the employees union's] assertions about the plan's contents or intent have no factual basis."

Union officials said they received the four-page "strategic vision" document from the agency in March. Part of their concern, Skwierczynski said, is that the document represents what the agency already believes, regardless of input from employees.

Skwierczynski said most people who work in field offices have a fundamentally different view of the agency's future. And so the union has drafted its own vision.

The first item on that document is a moratorium on field office closures.

"Academy members stated that their vision of 2025 is a society where most people will never leave their house except to be entertained," he wrote to members.

In the email, Skwierczynski described that as a "horrible … vision of alienation."

"Those who talk to the public all day," he wrote, "know that many couldn't survive without being able to deal directly with an SSA employee."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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Excerpts from document

•"To fulfill SSA's mission in 2025 as part of a comprehensive approach to delivering government services, we … automate processes to maximize operational efficiency … resulting in a smaller workforce and in reduced physical infrastructure."

•"Online self-service delivery is our primary service channel."

•"We provide direct service options (e.g., in-person, phone, online chat, video conference) in very limited circumstances, such as for complex transactions and to meet the needs of vulnerable populations."

•"Technology advances allow us to have a significantly smaller and more virtual workforce."

Social Security field offices

•There are about 1,200 Social Security field offices nationwide

•About 28,000 Social Security employees work in field offices

•Nearly 180,000 people visit a Social Security office every day

•Office workers help the public with Social Security and disability claims

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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