There's insecurity at Social Security, as budget furloughs loom Angry workers stage rally in Baltimore


There's no security for Social Security workers these days: Some 14,000 Baltimore-area employees face a reduced work schedule and a nearly 40 percent pay cut beginning next week, until Congress and the president resolve the federal budget impasse.

The agency said it will cut $1 billion in annual payroll costs through the 40 percent workweek cuts for all of its 63,000 employees nationwide.

Kevin Moley, budget chief for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said yesterday that Social Security plans to work six-hour shifts four days a week and to close Fridays, absent a budget breakthrough.

"We still hope Congress will do the right thing and we won't have to implement the cuts," he said.

The budget cutbacks, averaging 32 percent for federal agencies, will affect many of the 130,000 federal employees in Maryland.

The cuts mandated by the Gramm-Rudman budget deficit law hit hardest at government agencies that are labor intensive, and the Social Security Administration is the most vulnerable.

With one in six Americans receiving a Social Security retirement check, the White House-ordered cutbacks also are expected to produce maximum political backlash in Congress for any service reductions, employees note.

Angry workers who rallied yesterday outside the agency's Metro West building in downtown Baltimore said they are not expecting a last-minute reprieve.

James G. Evans, who has worked for Social Security for 33 years, plans to be at home with his wife, who also works for the agency.

"We'll be off, but our expenses sure won't be," said Mr. Evans, a salary adjustment technician who has applied for part-time jobs ferrying rental cars between states to make ends meet.

"The house, the car, the utilities, the baby sitter -- there won't be anything to save there," he said. Despite two incomes, Mr. Evans said the couple still has had little to save since the first threat of the furlough came in a letter from the agency three weeks ago. "You live from paycheck to paycheck and think it's never going to happen."

Linda Cornish, a records clerk for eight years, is a single parent with two sons in high school. "I'm at the lowest level -- a GS-3 -- and it's a struggle," she said.

"I'm really worried now. I'm looking for anything as part-time work -- temporary clerical, baby-sitting, domestic."

Some employees are already working second jobs, starting as early as 6:30 a.m. at Social Security under the agency's flexible work schedule and leaving at 3 p.m. When the furlough plan goes into effect, flextime will cease, employees have been told.

"I'm working two jobs already -- I need to, to meet the mortgage and car payment," said Jean Willis, a 23-year veteran records clerk. "The days I'm furloughed, I'll try to work extra hours available at the Rite Aid [drugstore]."

With two children in school, Francine Jones says she will try to avoid seeking another job to fill any pay gap caused by the furlough. "I can't leave my two kids alone all day," she said. "It's just impossible to work another part-time job and do my duty as a parent."

Morale among employees is at rock bottom, workers say. "Everyone is jittery, stressed out and angry," Patricia Dennis said. Payroll purchases of savings bonds are down, and few are making commitments to the multipurpose charity contribution campaign getting under way, she added.

"We've seen this political game played for years [with the budget]. This year, I believe it is really happening," she said.

"There's no way you can prepare for something like this, even if you know it is real," said the benefits authorization technician. Because of the uncertainty about furlough hours, people can't even line up a firm part-time job, noted Ms. Dennis, who has nonetheless applied for work at retail stores.

Social Security officials say they still expect to deliver benefit checks on time, despite the cuts. (Benefit payments and three-quarters of the federal budget are not subject to the automatic reductions.)

But processing of claims, benefit adjustments and corrections, address changes and especially the new applications for benefits made at 1,500 district offices across the country will be drastically affected by the slashed workweek, employees say.

John Gage, president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, warned that the reduced workweek will push many lower-grade employees now making $11,000 or $12,000 a year "below the poverty level -- they could qualify for food stamps."

Workers would not likely be eligible for unemployment benefits, he said, but the Baltimore AFL-CIO labor council has promised to help employees meet financial emergencies.

Some 2,500 other federal employees represented by the local, who work at the Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn, face furloughs one day a week for a 20 percent pay cut beginning Oct. 9.

Meantime, angry workers at Social Security say the unprecedented furlough letters they received four weeks ago have underlined a continuing erosion of benefits, pay and pride in their work.

"They're trying to squeeze us out. Washington doesn't respect the work we do," said Michael Anuszewski, a 24-year technician. "If this goes through, I'm going to look for another job and take early retirement. They spend money for everything over there except for people."

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