Changes promised at SSA Shalala calls conditions at agency 'awful'


Declaring that the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn is "understaffed" and has "just awful" working conditions, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala promised yesterday to try to make major improvements that would benefit the public and workers.

"I think [one of the buildings] looks like a 1950s factory. And those wonderful employees I met with when I was out there deserve better," she said. Ms. Shalala had visited the SSA headquarters earlier this year.

She visited Woodlawn yesterday for a ground-breaking for new Health Care Financing Administration buildings, to be located near the Social Security complex. Both Social Security and HCFA, which runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs for the elderly and poor, are part of Ms. Shalala's department.

Her comments on conditions came in a 90-minute meeting with editors and reporters of The Sun.

She did not elaborate on her criticism of conditions nor specify how many new employees might be needed. She criticized budget cuts during the Reagan and Bush administrations, which reduced Social Security's work force to 65,000 from 80,000, while automation was increased.

Cuts were made "with no rhyme or reason over the last 12 years," she said.

Ms. Shalala's comments about the Social Security Administration heartened union officials who represent many of the 14,000 workers there.

"Sounds like she's really concerned," said Jeannette Abrams, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees. But, she said, the real issue is: "What is she going to do about it?"

Ms. Abrams said the government could save money by hiring staff, particularly in the disability claims divisions.

"They don't have enough people to monitor all of the cases," she said. "So cases are going to slip through and they're supposed to keep track of people who are on disability. They're sending out disability checks to people who may have been back to work for a year or two."

Of working conditions, she asserted: "The air quality is poor. People are packed in like sardines." Some workers aren't trained properly; some managers hound workers, monitoring their calls and using "intimidation," she charged.

Ms. Shalala, appointed by President Clinton last winter, made no specific promises. She noted that the administration has made a short-term budget request to improve automation and deal with a backlog of disability claims. The president has asked Congress for $1.1 billion for computerization and $120 million to speed up ,, processing of claims from people who are disabled and unable )) to work. The claims backlog, which totaled 590,000 in 1990, has now reached 705,000.

She did not say where the funds for the improvements in working conditions at Social Security she proposed yesterday would come from.

Long-range plans for Social Security await a new management team, she said. She would not comment publicly on yesterday's published report that Mr. Clinton is expected to nominate Shirley Sears Chater, president of Texas Woman's University, as head of Social Security.

Ms. Shalala suggested that the disability claims problem involves more than staffing: ". . . We need to look at what we're doing, what our rules and regulations are, what the law looks like, why we have this backlog."

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