WASHINGTON — A push to expand online services at the Social Security Administration is meeting resistance from a federal union that represents thousands of agency employees and groups that fear the effort will minimize face-to-face help for seniors and the disabled.
Tucked into an otherwise uncontroversial planning document released by the Woodlawn-based agency this week were recommendations to increase the use of Internet-based self-service sites and to rely more heavily on video conferencing instead of in-person hearings to determine whether a claimant is eligible for benefits.
Social Security officials said the plan is intended to steer the agency toward the type of online service Americans have come to expect from businesses such as banks and airlines. A more up-to-date approach, they said, would help the agency's 60 million beneficiaries accomplish some tasks without having to set up appointments or wait in lines.
How the agency delivers services will be a central issue in the coming years as more baby boomers leave the workforce and begin to collect benefits. In the next 25 years, the number of beneficiaries in the retirement program is expected to increase by more than 70 percent, to about 80 million people.
"We have to use the technology that's available to us," Carolyn W. Colvin, the agency's acting commissioner, said in an interview. "We know that there are the realities of the budget, and [that's] going to require us to continue services in the most efficient manner."
Others, including the American Federation of Government Employees, said applying for disability benefits or deciding when to begin collecting retirement is more complicated than buying an airline ticket. Union leaders are concerned that the push toward online services will lead inevitably to reductions of the agency's roughly 1,250 field offices across the country.
About 28,000 employees work in those offices, and nearly 180,000 people visit them every day.
"These are complicated legal decisions. It's not like depositing a check at the bank," said Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, a Washington-based coalition that advocates for beneficiaries. "We should be opening new field offices given the number of people who are reaching retirement age."
Social Security field offices, like firehouses and schools in city neighborhoods, are closely watched not only by the people they serve but also by lawmakers, whose staff members are often called upon to intervene with the agency on behalf of constituents.
The Senate Aging Committee issued a scathing report last year on Social Security's procedures for closing field offices. Congress ultimately approved requirements that make it more difficult for the agency to close an office.
Colvin said Social Security remains "fully committed to sustaining a field office structure that provides face-to-face services." She rejected the idea that the web service and field offices are mutually exclusive.
Critics said the agency's commitment leaves a lot of wiggle room. They point to instances in which offices were closed or their hours were cut amid budget cuts handed down from Washington.
"Saying you're going to keep 'a field office structure' does not mean you're going to keep the current field office structure," said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the AFGE council that represents thousands of field office workers.
"The whole thing smells ... of more Internet service as opposed to face-to-face service," he said. "When you're faced with a major decision, you want to talk to someone who's an expert and can help you."
Colvin, clearly sensitive to the broader debate over service delivery, noted repeatedly that the agency briefed union leaders as the document was being crafted. On a website dedicated to the plan, which is called Vision 2025, officials included a quote that suggested that labor had endorsed the effort.
Several unions cited in that quote, including a council of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the suggestion was inaccurate.
Jim Marshall, president of AFGE Council 215, said he could not have endorsed the plan when it was released Monday because he had not yet read it.
"None of us would have endorsed a plan that we hadn't seen," he said. "I believe many portions of the vision can be supported with modifications and future revisions."
The quote was removed from the site.
The National Treasury Employees Union is also reviewing the implications of the plan. The union represents about 1,600 employees involved with deciding whether applicants are eligible for disability payments — an effort that has resulted in huge backlogs.
The union "supports the Social Security Administration's goal of reducing the case backlog and improving workplace efficiency," NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said. "We believe that the agency's Vision 2025 plan, if framed and implemented appropriately, can be a tool to achieve those goals."
Social Security has nearly 64,000 employees, including more than 11,000 in Maryland — making it one of the largest federal employers in the state.
The agency's plan calls for an expansion of video hearings as a way to shift pending disability review cases to offices that have less overwhelming caseloads.
Some administrative law judges who hear those cases have criticized the video hearings in the past, saying that they make it harder to assess a claimant's response to questions.
But Randy Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said the technology has improved and that many judges are resigned to video conferencing as a less-than-ideal, cost-cutting compromise.
"It's still an inferior process," Frye said. "But it's clearly the way of the future."