“There’s a New Sheriff in Town” at SSA

Published in RINewsToday on June 20, 2020

On June President Joe Biden has asked two political holdovers from the President Trump’s administration, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and his deputy, David Black, who had previously served as the agency’s top lawyer, to resign. Saul ultimately was fired after refusing to resign Friday, July 9, while Black resigned upon the president’s request that day. 

Biden named as acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level Social Security Administration (SSA) position, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy. 

The White House affirmed its authority to “remove the SSA Commissioner at will” by citing a Supreme Court ruling and a legal opinion from the Justice Department. Previously, under statute, the president could only remove the SSA commissioner for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.”

Saul’s term as Social Security Administrator ended in 2025 and according to The Washington Post, he states he plans to dispute the White House firing and continue to work remotely at his New York City home.

“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” Saul told The Washington Post, calling the attempt to unseat him a “Friday Night Massacre.”

Minority Members of Senate Aging Committee Oppose Firing

Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Fla..), Mike Braun (R-Ind..), Rick Scott (R-Fla..), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter July 14 to President Biden urging him to reinstate and honor the Senate confirmed, six-year term of Saul as SSA Commissioner. 

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging find the politically motivated action especially worrisome as it will have drastic effects on SSA services that help millions of older Americans with basic expenses like housing, food and medicine. 

The letter explains “Commissioner Saul was confirmed by the Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2019… led the agency through one of the most trying periods in its history during the COVID-19 pandemic… was confirmed by the Senate to serve a full six-year term that expires in 2025 and he should have remained in his position unless removed for cause, as written in federal law.

The committee requested the Biden administration explain what authority an acting commissioner—not confirmed by the Senate—would possess to carry out the statutorily obligated duties of the SSA commissioner. 

 On the Other Side of the Aisle…

“From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee. The Biden Administration made the right move to fire both Saul and Black after they refused to resign, says chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT), of the House Ways and Means Social Security Committee, who had called for Saul and Black’s removal in March 2021. “As [Supreme Court] Justice Alito recently stated, the president needs someone running the agency who will follow their policy agenda,” he says.

According to Larson, since June 17, 2019, Saul’s control over SSA policies have “disproportionately harmed vulnerable Americans like low-income seniors and persons with disabilities, immigrants and people of color.

During Saul’s tenure, Larson noted that the SSA implemented a new rule that denied disability benefits for older, severely disabled workers who are unable to communicate in English, resulting in approximately 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2029. However, there has been considerable discussion of the misinterpretation of the intent of this change.

SSA also finalized a new regulation that dramatically reduced due process protections for Social Security appeals hearings, by allowing the SSA to use agency attorneys instead of independent judges for the hearings, says Larson.

Larson also expressed concern about SSA proposing to change the disability review process to cut off benefits for some eligible people and proposing to make it significantly harder for older, severely disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits. 

According to Larson, Saul also advanced the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies by resuming “no-match letters” to employers with even minor discrepancies between their wage reports and their employees’ Social Security records. These letters effectively serve to harass immigrants and their employers, often leading to U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants being fired, he said.

Finally, Larson charged that Saul embraced the Trump Administration’s anti-federal employee policies, including forcing harsh union contracts that strip employees of rights and ending telework for thousands of employees just months before the COVID-19 pandemic started – a particularly ill-fated decision given the critical role telework has played in SSA’s ability to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Thumbs Up from Aging Advocacy Groups 

“The Social Security Commissioner should reflect the values and priorities of President Biden, which include improving benefits, extending solvency, improving customer services, reopening field offices, and treating SSA employees and their unions fairly. That was not the case with former Commissioner Saul, and we look forward to President Biden nominating someone who meets that standard,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works: “Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security. They’ve done their very best to carry out that despicable mission. That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce, and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”  

Introducing New SSA Commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi…

Kilolo Kijakazi has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University, an MSW from Howard University, and a BA from SUNY Binghamton University. Kijakazi’s Urban Institute bio notes that she served as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, where she “worked with staff across the organization to develop collaborative partnerships with those most affected by economic and social issues, to expand and strengthen Urban’s agenda of rigorous research, to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences and to recruit and retain a diverse research staff at all levels” while conducting research on economic security, structural racism, and the racial wealth gap. 

Kijakazi was previously employed as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a program analyst at the Food Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture, and an analyst at the National Urban League.

According to Wikipedia, before entering the Biden administration, Kijakazi was a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and its Study Panel on Economic Security, the Policy Academies and Liberation in a Generation, as well as a member of the DC Equitable Recovery Advisory Group, adviser to Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap at the Center for American Progress, and member of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“Kilolo has an amazing ability to find and build connections among individuals and institutions that should be working together on critical public policy issues and policy discussions are much better for that inclusionary approach,” says Margaret Simms, an Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.

Study: COVID-19 Changes Way Americans Think About Retirement

Published in RINewsToday on November 23

The raging coronavirus pandemic is changing the fundamental way working adults think, plan and save for their retirement, underscoring the important role Social Security and Medicare play for retirees, according to the 2020 Wells Fargo Retirement study conducted by The Harris Poll in August. The annual research report examines the attitudes and savings of working adults, taking a look this year on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on retirees.

For those workers whose jobs were negatively impacted by COVID-19 over the last eight months, the Wells Fargo study found that planning for retirement has become even more challenging, with many survey respondents expressing “pessimism” about their life in retirement – or worried if they can even retire. 

This year’s Harris Poll conducted 4,590 online interviews, from Aug.3-Aug. 24, including 2,660 working Americans age 18-76 whose employment was not impacted by COVID-19, 725 Americans age 18-76 whose employment was impacted by coronavirus pandemic, 200 high net worth American workers age 18-76, and 1,005 retired Americans, surveying attitudes and behaviors around planning their finances, saving, and investing for retirement.

According to the Wells Fargo study’s findings, 58 percent of workers impacted by the pandemic say they now don’t know if they have enough savings for retirement because of COVID-19, compared to 37 percent of all workers. Moreover, among workers impacted by coronavirus, 70 percent say they are worried about running out of money during their retirement while 61 percent say they are much more afraid of life in retirement, and 61 percent note that pandemic took the joy out of looking forward to retirement.

The study, released Oct. 21, found that COVID-19 has driven some workers even further behind in saving for retirement: Working men reported median retirement savings of $120,000, which compares to $60,000 for working women, say the researchers.  Yet for those impacted by COVID-19, men report median retirement savings of $60,000, which compares to $21,000 for women.

“With individual investors now largely responsible for saving and funding their own retirement, disruptive events and economic downturns can have an outsized impact on their outlook,” said Nate Miles, head of Retirement for Wells Fargo Asset Management in a statement releasing the findings of this study. “Our study shows that even for the most disciplined savers, working Americans are not saving enough for retirement. The good news is that for many of today’s workers, there is still time to save and prepare,” he says.

Taking a Close Look on Retirement Savings

The Wells Fargo study also found that women and younger generations are falling behind, too. Women are less sure if they will be able to save enough for retirement, and appear to be in a more precarious financial situation than men. The study findings indicate that almost half of working women (51 percent) say they are saving enough for retirement, or that they are confident they will have enough savings to live comfortably in retirement (51 percent). Those impacted by COVID-19 have saved less than half for retirement than men and are much more pessimistic about their financial lives. In addition, women impacted by COVID-19 are less likely to have access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan (59 percent), and are less likely to participate (77 percent).

According to the researchers, Generation Z workers (born between 1997 to 2012) started saving at an earlier age and are participating in employer-based savings programs at a greater rate than other generations, they are nonetheless worried about their future. Fifty-two percent of Generation Z workers say they don’t know if they’ll be able to save enough to retire because of COVID-19, 50 percent say they are much more afraid of life in retirement due to COVID-19, and 52 percent say the pandemic took the joy out of looking forward to retirement.

Remaining Optimistic

“The study found incredible optimism and resiliency among American workers and retirees, which is remarkable in the current [pandemic] environment,” said Kim Ta, head of Client Service and Advice for Wells Fargo Advisors. “As an industry, we must help more investors make a plan for their future so that optimism becomes a reality in retirement,” she said.

The Wells Fargo study findings showed that despite a challenging economy, many American workers and retirees remain optimistic about their current life, their future. Seventy nine percent of the workers say they are very or somewhat satisfied with their current life, in control of their financial life (79 percent), are able to pay their monthly bills (95 percent).  Eight six percent say they are still able to manage their finances.

The study’s findings indicate that 69 percent of workers and 73 percent of retirees feel in control and/or happy about their financial situation. Ninety two percent of the workers and 91 precent of retirees say they can positively affect their financial situation, and 90 percent of workers and 88 percent of retirees say they can positively affect how their debt situation progresses.

The researchers noted that 83 percent of workers say they could pay for a financial emergency of $1,000 without having to borrow money from friends or family. However, the respondents acknowledged they could improve their financial planning. Slightly more than half — 54 percent of workers and 50 percent of retirees — say they a detailed financial plan, and just 27 percent of workers and 29 percent of retirees have a financial advisor.

The study’s findings indicated that most respondents acknowledged that they could improve their financial planning. Slightly more than half — 54 percent of workers and 50 percent of retirees note they have a detailed financial plan, and just 27 percent of workers and 29 percent of retirees have a financial advisor.

Social Security and Medicare Key to Retiree’s Financial Security

The Wells Fargo study noted that despite an increasing shift to a self-funded retirement, in the midst of the pandemic, nearly all workers and retirees believe that Social Security and Medicare play or will play a significant role in their retirement.  According to the study, 71 percent of workers, 81 percent of those negatively impacted by COVID-19, and 85 percent of retirees say that COVID-19 reinforced how important Social Security and Medicare will be for their retirement. Sixty seven percent of workers say they have no idea what out-of-pocket healthcare costs will be in retirement, say the researchers.

The researchers say that workers expect that Social Security will make up approximately one-third of their monthly budget (30 percent median) in retirement. And even those high-net workers believe that Social Security and Medicare factor significantly into their retirement plans, expecting that the retirement program will cover 20 percent (median) of their monthly expenses.

The majority of the study’s respondents expressed concerns that the programs will not be available when they need them and worry that the government won’t protect them.  Specifically, 76 percent of workers are concerned Social Security will be raided to pay down government debt and 72 percent of workers are afraid that Social Security won’t be available when they retire.

The Wells Fargo study also found that 90 percent of workers would feel betrayed if the money they paid into Social Security is lost and not available when they retire and that 45 percent of workers are optimistic that Congress will make changes to secure the future of Social Security.

The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.