Long Lines for Social Security Recipients

Backlogs and unanswered phone calls are plaguing Social Security field offices, report says

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Baby boomer retirement and a “retirement wave” of experienced Social Security Administration (SSA) employees could create long lines and unanswered phone calls, according to a recent report. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that staffing in Social Security field offices dropped 4.4 percent from 2005 to 2008. To keep up, the staff deferred some lower priority work. But field office work produced still fell by 1.3 percent during the same period and customer satisfaction dropped from 84 percent to 81 percent.

More than 3 million customers who went to a field office to apply for Social Security cards, sign up for retirement and disability benefits, or establish direct deposit waited for over 1 hour to be served in fiscal year 2008, including approximately 405,000 people who waited more than 2 hours for service. Those with appointments waited significantly less time. Many customers also reported poor office phone service. SSA’s Field Office Caller Survey found that 51 percent of customers calling selected field offices had at least one earlier call that had gone unanswered. That number could be even higher because only customers who eventually got through to the field office were included in the survey.

Field office managers and staff told GAO that they cannot keep up with their work. When an office is under stress, some types of work are deferred including changes of address, updates to direct deposit information, and conducting reviews of beneficiaries’ continuing eligibility. Delaying these reviews means that beneficiaries who no longer qualify for benefits may still erroneously receive payments.

And yet the SSA workload is expected to increase. In fiscal year 2008, approximately 1,300 field offices provided service to about 44 million customers. SSA estimates that retirement and disability filings will increase the agency’s work by about 1 million annual claims by 2017. The agency also projects that 44 percent of its staff will retire by 2016.

SSA published a strategic plan in September 2008, which calls for the elimination of the backlog of disability hearings and efforts to increase online retirement filings. You can watch one of SSA’s TV spots featuring actress Patty Duke promoting signing up for Social Security online here.