WASHINGTON — Facing an aging population and steady growth in disability claims, the Social Security Administration said Thursday it will expand hours at neighborhood offices across the country — reversing a years-long reduction in service that has frustrated the public and lawmakers.
Beginning in March, the Woodlawn-based agency plans to keep about 1,250 field offices open an hour later, allowing potential beneficiaries more time to consult with caseworkers and to file claims and appeals.
Social Security, forced in recent years to accommodate ever-tighter budgets, cut hours at field offices three times since 2011 and encouraged more beneficiaries to access services online.
But that approach drew criticism from advocates and some in Congress.
"There remains a tremendous need for in-person services," said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP. "Not only retirees, but also workers, widows and the disabled will benefit from expanded field office hours."
In most cases, the extension means an office will stay open until 4 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, instead of closing at 3 on those days. Offices will continue to close at noon on Wednesdays.
Social Security served more than 59 million people last year — a 24 percent increase over the past decade — including 48 million retired workers and their dependents and nearly 11 million on disability. Those numbers are expected to grow as baby boomers — the oldest of whom turn 69 this year — retire in greater numbers.
Carolyn W. Colvin, the agency's acting commissioner, advised Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of the expanded hours in a letter made public Thursday. Colvin said Mikulski's efforts when she was chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to increase funding for the agency made the longer hours possible.
Congress approved a $651 million increase for the agency in the last fiscal year and another $109 million increase in the current fiscal year. Overall funding in the current fiscal year is pegged at $11.8 billion.
"Longer hours means more Social Security employees will be on the job to help people sign up for retirement or disability benefits and sort out confusion and concerns," Mikulski said in a statement. The Maryland Democrat lost chairmanship of the committee when Republicans took control of the Senate this month.
Colvin said the agency began to recover from cuts in the 2014 fiscal year, replacing some staff in field offices and offering overtime.
"This expansion of office hours reaffirms our commitment to providing the people we serve the option of top-notch, face-to-face assistance in field offices," she said in a statement. "The public expects and deserves world-class customer service."
Social Security, which deals directly with the public on a scale unusual for the federal government, has reversed other recent service cuts as well. Last fall, the agency resumed mailing benefit statements — a practice it halted in 2011 (the mailings are to come every five years instead of annually).
Cristine Marchand, executive director of The Arc Maryland, said the longer hours could be a big help for those who assist relatives with intellectual or developmental disabilities in dealing with Social Security.
"The longer hours are welcomed so families do not have to take more time off from work [or] from multiple and intense caregiving responsibilities," Marchand wrote in an email. "Of course, additional hours are necessary, but this is a start."
Agency employees have decried the cuts in hours as well as the closing of dozens of offices in recent years. Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents thousands of those workers, said he was pleased by the announcement, but warned the agency must also ensure it has people in place to handle the extra work.
Skwierczynski said he recently visited two offices in the Washington area, including one in Prince George's County, and found standing-room crowds waiting for help.
"Face-to-face service is important," Skwierczynski said. "But you can't just open the offices … longer. You've got to provide the staff resources so that we can deal with the needs of the American public."
The agency was the subject of a critical report last summer that suggested it did not use consistent criteria when determining whether to close its field offices. The Senate Special Committee on Aging found that Social Security had frequently failed to provide notification of the closures to local officials.
In June, President Barack Obama nominated Colvin for a six-year term as the head of Social Security, but she faced opposition from Republicans over a failed computer contract, and her confirmation was stalled in the final days of the last Congress.
Social Security has nearly 64,000 employees, including more than 11,000 in Maryland — making it one of the largest federal entities in the state.