In a move certain to be attacked by the elderly, Congress and its employees, the Social Security Administration will consider closing some of its field offices and consolidating others, the new commissioner of the huge federal agency headquartered in Woodlawn said yesterday.
In her first interview since her name surfaced as the probable nominee in July, Shirley Sears Chater seemed at times overwhelmed by the sheer size of the agency. But she confirmed that the agency is considering closing and consolidating some of its 1,300 field offices -- changes that could affect the agency's service to its beneficiaries.
Ms. Chater noted that some offices are inundated by recipients and applicants while others, often only a couple of miles away, experience much less demand for services.
"There is no plan at this moment to close a field office," Ms. Chater said. "But we will talk about it and we will examine where our offices are located."
The issue first surfaced in late September in the form of notes taken during a meeting of agency officials, which were leaked to the press. Asked about the controversial issue at her confirmation hearing two days later, Ms. Chater said she had not been briefed on the subject.
In an interview yesterday in her top-floor office at Social Security headquarters, Ms. Chater made clear that she is still coming to grips with the agency's size.
"This city called the Social Security Administration is absolutely awesome," said Ms. Chater, who is working 14 to 16 hours a day to learn her way around the place and the issues.
She confessed that she could not find her way on her own from her Washington home to her Woodlawn office because she is too busy reading during her chauffeured trips to pay attention to the route.
With 65,000 employees, including 14,200 in the Baltimore area, the Social Security Administration is one of the largest federal agencies and touches the lives of most Americans. It sends checks to 45 million people a month and collects payroll taxes from 135 million workers.
Ms. Chater came to the agency from the presidency of Texas Woman's University in Denton, near Dallas, a 9,600-student institution with an annual budget of $45 million. She has been cautious and deliberate as she tries to master the intricacies and complexities of the vast agency, but she is said to have made a favorable initial impression on employees.
"She has said all the right things," said John Gage, president of the union local that represents agency employees in the Baltimore area. "She's a classy lady."
During yesterday's interview, Ms. Chater tied the possibility of field office changes to the agency's development of a "service delivery plan," an effort that would examine how and where Social Security serves the public.
Later yesterday, an agency official said that cuts and consolidations would not occur if the result would be a reduction in service. Social Security, he said, will always have a large field office network, although, he acknowledged, perhaps not as large as it now has.
His comments highlighted the sensitivity of the issue.
Yet, agency officials believe that they have to examine the situation. The General Accounting Office noted last week that, with the baby boom generation approaching retirement age, the population of elderly served by the Social Security Administration is moving to the South and West while disability recipients are concentrated in the cities of the North and East. Ms. Chater said the agency has to take account of those demographic shifts as it plans.
"It might mean transfer of some employees; it may mean other work assignments" for others, she said of the possibilities. "But, I don't know at this point."
On another subject, Ms. Chater said she was "not in a position" to say how the agency would use the extra $200 million it received from Congress this year to cope with the backlog of applications for disability payments.
An administration official said later that the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the agency, has sought a waiver from the Office of Management and Budget so that the Social Security Administration can hire 1,000 additional employees to cope with the backlog, which has reached 700,000 cases and threatens to go well over 1 million next year.
The funds could also be used to pay overtime. Ms. Chater expressed concern over "burnout," saying that many Social Security employees are close to the limit of overtime they can work.
But Mr. Gage, the union official, said many employees are eager for overtime. "Some of our people are woefully underpaid," he said. "That overtime is essential."