It is well-known that the Social Security Administration (SSA) is facing managerial and operational challenges. There have been significant backlogs and Social Security Disability (SSD) in particular has become a political football, with many pundits suggesting that the disability benefits program will need to start cutting benefits or go out of business altogether. No wonder the public is confused.
Efforts by the SSA to Address Problems
The Social Security Administration tries to cope with its problems in many ways. It has reallocated personnel resources to address backlogs. It has shifted claims review activities from overworked offices to locations that are less busy. It has tried to implement online benefit applications. All of these strategies have received media attention as the agency tries to deliver the services funded by workers and employers with every pay check. Have these changes made a difference to SSD benefits applicants, or have they just made things worse?
One Solution: Closing Field Offices
One effort to streamline has received less attention. The agency has gradually closed many field offices, forcing applicants and beneficiaries to either wait on the phone or use the often confusing website - if they can do so. Because of staff and hours cuts, people have to wait longer for in-person assistance at the smaller number of offices that have remained open.
Effect of Office Closings on Public
How has the reduction in open offices and hours affected the public? Some would have you believe that the impact is minimal. In-person hearings are being replaced by video conferencing, and online services allow most people to get their questions answered without a visit to a field office or a phone call, according to SSA officials. Is this really true? For a large number of SSD claimants, the answer is a resounding "No."
In particular, the conversion to more online assistance has raised the bar for the elderly and disabled who must interact with the SSA. The elderly may not be familiar with or comfortable using online services. The disabled may be physically unable to use computers effectively. Because the elderly and disabled are the core constituency of the SSA, forcing these groups to go online may simply cause delays and problems later on when individuals are unable to get their questions answered. The consequence of forcing applicants to go online often adds time to the already too-lengthy application process.
The effort to improve online services has been funded at least in part by closing SSA field offices. According to one 2014 news report, 64 Social Security field offices closed since 2009. Additionally, 533 so-called mobile offices closed, leaving only 1,245 field offices open throughout the country. Those offices remaining have reduced hours, because in addition to higher demands and fewer offices, the SSA has reduced staff. The SSA eliminated 11,000 positions between 2011 and 2014. Office closings and staff reductions have resulted in significantly longer wait times for individuals who must visit field offices in person. For the disabled and the elderly - the SSA's core constituency, this is frequently a serious hardship. And there is no guarantee that questions will be answered correctly even if someone makes the often-lengthy trip to get to a field office.
Deciding Which Offices to Close
How does the Social Security Administration decide which field offices to close? According to a report presented by the agency to Congress in 2014, the SSA uses these and other factors to make office closure decisions:
- Workload demands in the office
- Age of the workforce in the region
- Customer expectations in the region
- Proximity to other SSA offices
- Geography of area served: This includes public transportation, highways, parking, changes in other nearby services, etc.
- Status of lease: The SSA generally does not own buildings, but leases them for 10 years. A soon-to-expire lease is viewed as an opportunity to assess a field office.
Another important justification for closing field offices, according to the SSA, is that nearly half of all claimants for old-age pensions and disability benefits completed their applications online in 2014. However, what about the other half? It appears that these people have been left behind because of office closings and staff reductions.
Although the SSA points to its systematic approach to selecting offices to close, it is clearly defensive about its decision to close offices as needed. One indicator of this is that instead of referring to shuttered offices as "closed," the SSA calls them "consolidated" offices, a telling difference.
It's hard to predict what the future holds for the Social Security Administration and its disability and pension programs. What is clear, however, is that people will need help obtaining benefits for many years to come, making it critical for the agency to maintain a variety of options for providing assistance, including field offices.