Inside the Capital Beltway, much of the recent public focus on Social Security has centered on the prospect of spending cuts, reduced retiree benefits and further hikes in the federal retirement age, as favored by several now-victorious candidates in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate following the midterm elections (”Republicans float changes to Social Security and Medicare,” Nov. 2).
In the field, the damage from years of neglect is more immediate. Lines at Social Security field offices, telephone wait times and retirement and disability processing times continue to grow amid a sustained staff shortage. Right now, Social Security operates with 4,000 fewer field office and teleservice center employees than it did 12 years ago. The current workforce of less than 60,000 is a 25-year low, even as the number of beneficiaries has increased by more than 10 million.
It’s no exaggeration to say the agency is in crisis. This dire staffing shortage is only going to get worse. Overworked, overloaded and underpaid, thousands more of those workers are expected to depart in the current fiscal year.
A recent employee survey of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, for whom I serve as Maryland state president, found that nearly half plan to leave the agency within the next year. Council 220 represents 26,500 field workers serving 63 million Social Security recipients at 1,200 field offices, teleservice centers and workload support units nationwide.
That means this prolonged staffing shortfall — and, likely, even longer wait times and further delays in application processing — is only going to get worse. The agency’s failure to embrace readily available technology to mitigate wait times and the need for in-person office visits compounds the problem.
Given the task of serving society’s most vulnerable, SSA should be on the forefront of making its services more accessible and convenient. Its refusal to adopt a sensible telework policy that benefits both civil service workers and taxpayers flies in the face of that mission.
With hours-long wait times, plummeting applicant pools and dissatisfied employees clamoring to exit, it’s past time to utilize every tool at our disposal to ensure that these customers aren’t wasting time — and being needlessly put at risk when so many tools of modernization are available.
— Anita Marcel Autrey, Hyattsville
The writer is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1923.
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