Social Security officials, who have been saying that they will need thousands more workers by 2000, have been ordered by the Clinton administration to cut nearly 5,000 employees.
The administration plans to cut 272,000 federal workers over five years, about 7 percent of the total, and told Social Security to reduce its work force from 65,231 to 60,472.
The agency responded that it would cut 5,500 jobs at its Woodlawn headquarters and its regional headquarters and add 900 positions in its field offices, for a net reduction of about 4,400. The Office of Management and Budget bounced the plan back for more work, said an agency spokesman, Larry DeWitt.
Early this year, the Woodlawn agency projected that it would need a staff increase of 25 percent or more by 2000 to handle its current workload and additional tasks handed it by Congress.
Less than three weeks ago, John Dyer, a deputy commissioner, told a meeting of agency officials and union representatives that Social Security will need nearly 75,000 employees to do the job by 2000, according to two people who attended the meeting.
One of those at the meeting said that this was an optimistic figure based on the assumption that the agency would succeed in a major automation effort and in streamlining operations.
However, Mr. DeWitt said yesterday that Mr. Dyer had been misunderstood and that the figure assumed "business as usual" without streamlining and automation.
Mr. DeWitt insisted that the agency will be able to do its work with the reduced work force ordered by the administration.
"We think we can do it with the 60,000 figure," he said.
But, union officials said that it is not possible to accomplish the work with that number.
"This is a total disaster," said Witold Skwierczynski, of the American Federation of Government Employees. "They keep adding programs, and then they come in with these staff cuts," he said. "It's insanity."
Social Security went through a major staff cut during the 1980s, losing a quarter of its 80,000 employees to a largely unsuccessful automation effort. Among other things, the agency created a toll-free number that replaced direct telephone access to its 1,300 field offices -- perhaps the agency's most unpopular move.
Since the late 1980s, Social Security's workload has increased substantially. Applications for disability benefits have soared 70 percent in the past five years to 3 million a year and are expected to continue increasing. The agency has more than 1 million applications pending, and applicants wait months, sometimes up to two years, for a decision.
Swamped with new disability applications, the agency has virtually abandoned reviews of beneficiaries on the rolls to see if they are still disabled. Nevertheless, Congress this year told the agency to conduct more than 100,000 additional reviews each ** year.
Critics saw little chance that the reviews would be done in the face of staff reductions. The result, they said, is a likely increase in the number of people collecting benefits although they are no longer eligible.
Congress has added to the agency's load by ordering Social Security to send annual statements of earnings and potential benefits to about 123 million Americans beginning in 2000. While sending the statements will be highly automated, the agency expects to be swamped by complaints of errors that it will have to correct. The agency said this year that it would need 11,000 employees to handle that work.
In early 1994, the Clinton administration targeted Social Security for a reduction of 1,000 workers in the fiscal year that began last week -- part of the effort to cut 100,000 federal workers. But the administration relented. Not only did it scrap the reduction, but it allowed the agency an extra 400 employees to process disability applications.
Chapin Wilson, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, sees no hope for a repeat of that. "Congress has put it [the cut of 272,000 workers] into law and spent the money on the crime bill," he said, referring to the $30 billion measure Congress adopted in August. "Everybody's trapped now."