Social Security in ‘Crisis,’ Union Warns Member Benefits Could Be in Limbo

Frustrated young woman in yellow sweater standing at table and touching face with hand while packing stuff in office after dismissal.
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The country’s biggest federal employee union issued a dire warning this week about the state of the Social Security Administration, saying the agency is understaffed and underfunded to the point where it faces a “crisis” that could lead to even worse delays in getting benefits to millions of recipients.

The warning came on Monday during a panel hosted by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents more than 40,000 Social Security Administration employees, CNBC reported.

During the panel discussion, AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture said the SSA “is in the midst of the worst public service crisis in memory caused by historic levels of employee attrition due to uncompetitive pay and benefits, exceedingly low employee morale, and overwhelming workloads.”

Staffing levels at the SSA are at a 25-year low even as the number of beneficiaries continues to grow with the retirement of baby boomers. The number of beneficiaries is expected to increase 25% in 2023 alone, according to the Government Executive website.

The lack of staffing has already led to long wait times for beneficiaries seeking customer service help at the SSA. This became a major problem during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when field offices were forced to close and many staffers left the agency. Even with offices open again, callers seeking help might face hold times of 30 minutes or more, the AFGE said.

Things aren’t likely to improve anytime soon. As previously reported by GOBankingRates, the AARP said customer service at the SSA “is going to get worse before it gets better” unless the agency gets more funding from Congress.

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The AARP warning was in response to the fiscal year 2023 operating plan the SSA submitted to Congress on Feb. 10. The FY 2023 Social Security outlay of $14.1 billion represents an increase of about $785 million from the FY 2022 budget of $13.34 billion but was less than the $14.8 billion President Joe Biden requested.

“We must address the significant number of people who are waiting too long for important disability decisions at all levels of the disability process,” SSA Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi wrote in a February letter to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the appropriations committee. “In particular, we share claimants’ frustration about waiting over seven months on average for an initial disability decision. We are confronting historically high employee losses, especially in the DDSs [disability determination services] that make the medical determinations for initial disability claims and reconsiderations, and conduct medical continuing disability reviews (CDR).”

On average, it takes more than two years for beneficiaries to get approved for disability benefits from the time they submit their applications, according to a blog on the website of Atticus, a law firm that specializes in primary-care support.

While some lawmakers suggest that the SSA’s customer service problems are due to a rise in telework, the AFGE puts the blame on inadequate funding. The union said that after inflation, the impact of the latest funding round was “negligible.”

Government Executive noted that roughly 1,000 workers are leaving the SSA each month due to burnout and insufficient pay, benefits and workplace flexibilities. The AFGE and management are scheduled to begin renegotiation on six articles of their collective bargaining agreement next week.

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“Hiring is down 50% since 2010, promotions are down 25%, and staffing is at a 25-year low,” said Jessica LaPointe, president of AFGE Council 220. “Employees are being treated like disposable cogs in a machine, and when an employee burns out and quits, the agency just seeks to replace them.”

As CNBC reported, the AFGE’s $17.39 billion budget proposal for FY 2024 would include $9.62 billion for employee salary and benefits; $2.92 billion for state Disability Determination Services; $2.75 billion for rent, equipment, furnishings, security guards and other items; and $1.89 billion for technology. It also would include $100 million for employee retention pay, $90 million for mailed Social Security statements and $20 million for metal detectors.

Biden’s budget request of 10% more for the Social Security Administration is the “absolute bare minimum that Congress needs to approve for SSA,” Linda Benesch, communications director at advocacy organization Social Security Works, said on Monday. “Beneficiaries deserve a Social Security system that works and that means a fully funded Social Security Administration.”

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