WASHINGTON -- In a politically sensitive move that would break with a half-century-old practice, the Social Security Administration is considering spreading payments to retirees and other beneficiaries throughout the month rather than distributing them all at once.
If the change is made, said a Social Security Administration spokesman, it would be phased in as new recipients go on the rolls.
Those who now receive monthly payments from the agency headquartered in Woodlawn would not be affected.
The agency looked at the possibility of changing payment dates for current recipients but "decided that it would not be feasible" and would not be equitable, said Phil Gambino, the agency spokesman.
Consideration of the change grew out of Vice President Al Gore's "re-inventing government" task force, he said.
The multipayment idea was discussed in an Oct. 21 agency briefing document, "Improving Service Delivery at the Social Security Administration: A Conceptual Proposal."
The document, which will be distributed to various interest groups and employee organizations for comment, describes an agency trying to "re-engineer" itself to recover from a 20 percent staff cut and a 30 percent workload increase over the last decade -- along with a substantial increase in the amount of work in coming years.
Recognizing the "significant impact on the public" that changing the distribution date of benefits would have, the briefing paper says Social Security would seek legislation from Congress if it decided to make the move.
The document indicates that the change, if adopted, would apply to the 47 million current enrollees -- 42 million who now receive payments on the third of each month from the main Social Security program, as well 5 million who get payments on the first of the month from the separate Supplemental Security Income disability program.
The latter is a welfare program that does not require recipients to have paid into the Social Security trust fund.
But Mr. Gambino insisted that the change would apply only to future enrollees -- and only to those in the major Social Security program and not to SSI recipients.
The agency says the proposal would be part of an effort to smooth out what it calls "dramatic peaks and valleys" in its workload, caused to a large extent by "check week" when calls to its toll-free telephone number and visits to the agency soar.
In fiscal 1992, according to Mr. Gambino, the agency got 75 million calls on the 800 number, including 20 million where the caller got a busy signal or was put on hold.
The planning document now being circulated describes the impact of "check week" on the 800-number:
"The busy signal rate during the first week of the month can be around 40 percent, compared to less than 10 percent during the last week of the month," it says.
The proposal drew a mixed reaction.
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., the Indiana Democrat who heads the House Social Security subcommittee, said that the change could be a problem because, "Our society operates pretty much on a first-of-the-month basis," with most bills due then.
For those who received their checks in mid-month, he asked, "Would the money still be there on the first of the month to pay the utility bill?"
A spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons said the organization was "hesitant to comment" on the proposal.
But Ethel Zelelske, who follows Social Security issues for the National Senior Citizens Law Center, said, "From an administrative point of view, it's probably not a bad idea.
"I don't think people care when they get their check just as long as they know when it's coming."
Witold Skwierczynskic, president of an American Federation of Government Employees local that represents Social Security field office workers, saw the proposal as a belt-tightening move.
"They were able to deal with the workload quite successfully when they were appropriately staffed," he said. Saying the briefing paper is full of "radical concepts," he added, "The whole thing is about staffing cuts and saving money. I don't think it has anything to do with improving service."
As baby boomers begin to retire over the next quarter-century, Social Security expects the number of people -- retirees, survivors, dependents and the disabled -- who draw payments from its main program to grow from 42 million to 70 million, said Mr. Gambino. Currently, nearly 4 million people are added to the rolls each year.
The briefing document admits that it "is becoming increasingly difficult" for the agency "to provide high-quality, responsive service to its customers."
Looking to the future, the agency anticipates, in addition to a sharp increase in the number of Social Security recipients:
* A sharply rising workload from increasing claims for disability payments. Initial disability claims have risen 47 percent in the last three years, swamping the agency and creating a backlog of claims that approaches 1 million. The number of new claims filed during the current fiscal year is expected to approach 3 million.
* Substantial new work to meet a congressional mandate that requires the mailing of an annual statement of earnings and future benefits to 123 million workers who pay Social Security taxes, beginning in fiscal year 2000.
"Once workers receive the statements, SSA will need to respond to a high volume of inquiries and investigate and correct any errors identified," says the briefing paper, anticipating the possibility of a "very large workload spike in the near term and the need for additional resources."
The document airs a number of proposals for bureaucratic reorganization and a more flexible work force that can be shifted from job to job as demand warrants.
It discusses reorganization that establishes about 50 large "integrated service centers" -- replacements for 37 tele-service centers and 7 major processing centers -- along with satellite "community based offices" that are now called field offices.
The document is careful not to talk about the number of community-based offices. Agency officials have acknowledged that they are considering closings and consolidations among the more than 1,300 field offices.