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Is Social Security Phasing Out Its Offices?

A recent Social Security Administration report gives them short shrift

By Mark Miller

Will you be able to go to a Social Security office 10 years from now for help claiming your benefits?

Probably — but a new report from the Social Security Administration (SSA) outlining its vision for future service delivery has some critics worried about the future of the agency’s face-to-face customer services.

A report issued last month by the Social Security Administration, called Vision 2025, lays out the agency’s plan for service delivery in the year 2025. It’s worth paying heed, because as we approach the 80 anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act in August, few government agencies touch so many of our lives directly, including 39 million retired workers, four million children and four million additional survivors.

Vision 2025 is a comprehensive document that describes the shifting demographics of the Social Security Administration’s customer base and the need for change in the agency’s business processes and workforce. Not surprisingly, the report calls for a continuing shift to service delivery over the Internet and mobile platforms.

The Vision 2025 Report Has Drawn Fire

But the report has been drawing fire as too technologically-centric, and a not-so-subtle signal that in-person Social Security customer service will be greatly diminished in the future. In particular, the union that represents the Social Security Administration’s field office workers thinks Vision 2025 sends a clear signal that the agency sees its future mainly online.

“In a 10,000 word report on the future of the agency, there are no more than a couple mentions of the field offices — and neither one provides any insight into the agency’s plans to use them to serve the public,” says Eric Shulman, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents nearly 25,000 field office employees.

“They talk about the Internet as the gateway for Social Security, and redefining face to face services,” Shulman adds. “You can’t do that and say virtually nothing about the field offices and have anyone think there is a plan for the field offices.

AFGE has circulated a letter to members of Congress objecting to Vision 2025.

A Secret Plan?

“If SSA has a secret plan to eliminate all or most of the field offices, Congress, the public and the employees deserve to know about it,” the letter says. “If they do not, then the agency should be asked to provide some insight into the role of these community offices in the future. It is a reasonable question and it should be put to the agency before this process is allowed to continue.”

The Social Security Administration strongly denies that its report aims to bury field offices.

“We encourage customers to go online if they want to but we certainly focus on individuals who prefer face-to face-services or the telephone,” says Carolyn W. Colvin, the agency’s acting commissioner .


The Push to Use Social Security's Site

Colvin encourages all workers to sign up for online Social Security accounts at the government’s my SocialSecurity site, which lets you: track and verify the accuracy of earnings credited for benefits; get estimates of future benefits and handle other account management chores. Colvin also notes the availability of the agency’s toll-free number (800-772-1213), which received more than one billion calls this year.

But she acknowledges the limits of technology and the critical role of the offices; less digitally-savvy seniors need to be able to visit offices and lower-income beneficiaries don’t always have ready Internet access. “Technology will never replace human interaction — we’re committed to the field offices as the face of the organization in communities.”

Customer service has been a big issue for several years at the Social Security Administration; the problems stem from an administrative budget squeeze applied by Congress.

Office Closings and Rising Wait Times

Over the past decade, the agency often received much less than its budget request, although it has been fully funded for the past two fiscal years. Budget cuts forced closure of 64 field offices and more than 500 temporary mobile offices as well as reductions in office hours for the public. Staff was reduced by 12,000 and wait times for service soared.

Since then, 5,000 of the lost positions have been restored, due in large measure to to AFGE’s lobbying efforts. This year, office hours were expanded by one hour on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

The Social Security Administration has also all but eliminated mailed benefit checks,  requiring most beneficiaries to get their Social Security money via direct deposit to a bank account or debit card.

In a controversial move, the agency stopped mailing annual paper statements in 2011 as a money-saving move. The intent was to get everyone signed up for online accounts, where statements could be downloaded. But signups for My Social Security accounts have  been slow. Just 18 million Americans have signed up, Colvin says. That’s about 10 percent of all workers. The agency backtracked on this decision last year and resumed mailings at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller is a journalist and author specializing in topics related to retirement and aging. He contributes to The New York Times, Reuters and other publications, and publishes a weekly newsletter on news and trends in the field at his website, RetirementRevised. Twitter: @retirerevised. Read More
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