Social Security learns from remote experience, plans field office openings

Published on December 13, 2021 in RINewsToday

On March 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread throughout the nation, the Social Security Administration  (SSA) issued a press release announcing that its offices would only offer phone service and online services.

However, in-person appointments at SSA were scheduled for critical issues, specifically for those who were without food, medicine, shelter, or those needing to apply for benefits or to reinstate them. This decision allowed SSA to provide critical services while protecting its employees and older beneficiaries, many with underlying medial conditions. 

Congress Expresses Concern Over Closing of SSA Field Offices  

Almost four months later, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT) and Republican Leader Tom Reed (R-NY) sent two letters to the SSA Inspector General Gail S. Ennis asking for a review of SSA’s telephone service during the COVID-19 pandemic and SSA’s process for obtaining medical evidence for disability claims.

The correspondence to SSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, beneficiaries are relying on their Social Security now more than ever. Except in dire need, beneficiaries are unable to access in-person services and are relying instead on telephone services.

Members of Congress warned that beneficiaries, especially those from vulnerable populations who lack internet connection especially in rural areas or don’t have a reliable phone number or mailing addresses, are struggling to gain access SSA while field offices are closed.

“As highlighted in the OIG’s recent report, even before the current crisis the pubic relied heavily in SSA’s telephone services, but often could not access timely information or assistance. In fiscal year 2019, SSA’s national 1-800 number and field  offices received over 143 million calls – but handled fewer than to 3 of these calls. Callers who did not get a busy signal or give up while on hold waited to speak with an SSA employee for an average of 20 minutes on the 1-800 number and three minutes at field offices.

In addition, SSA requests millions of medical records each year from health care facilities and health professionals across the country to obtain evidence of an individual’s medical condition. The medical records request is an important part of the disability process, but the most recent report on this topic from the OIG is from 2001 and does not reflect changes to the process over the past nearly 20 years.

“Social Security benefits are earned by hard-working Americans, and we must do everything we can to ensure people are receiving the quality customer service they deserve.  These reports will provide important information to make sure Americans are receiving the service they expect and deserve from SSA,” said Larson and Reed.

SSA Responds to the Closing of Field Offices 

Almost two weeks ago, Ennis released a 58-page Congressional Response report, “The Social Security Telephone Service Performance,” detailing the impact on the closing of about 1,300 field offices.

The OIG found that in FY 2020, SSA received over 150 million calls, more than any other federal agency surveyed, and handled over half of those calls. Calls to field offices increased dramatically, from an average of 4.6 million calls per month leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic to an average of 7.5 million calls per month from April to Sept. 2020.

According to the OIG’s report, SSA’s telephone services shifted to more calls to field offices in FY 2020 when the agency closed its offices and provided the public with more field office telephone numbers. The increase in field office calls resulted in increased busy messages and wait-times toward the end of FY 2020. During the pandemic, SSA adjusted national 800 number operations to reduce wait times and the number of callers who received a busy message. National 800 number performance began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year, though it was still better then pre-pandemic performance.

When comparing SSA to 13 customer service call centers from 10 other federal agencies, SSA had a higher call volume in FY 2020 with similar or better performance.

To reduce wait times, improve caller experience, and ensure more calls are handled SSA hired additional 800-number staff, modified automated service options, and plans to implement a new telephone system.

“This [IOG] report highlights that SSA’s telephone services are vital to the American public. While I applaud the hard work of SSA employees, especially during the pandemic, the report also highlights actions that SSA is taking to reduce telephone wait times, handle more calls and improve caller experience, said Larson, noting that SSA will need more funding to do so and that is why he is supporting House Appropriations and Chair DeLauro’s proposal to give SSA an additional $1.1 billion in FY 2022.

Adds Reed, “This report provides clear evidence that with determined agency leadership and the hard work of dedicated staff, the SSA was able to respond to the largest management crisis in its history. With the almost 65 percent increase in phone calls during the pandemic the report also demonstrates the public’s clear and continued demand for access to the SSA’s vital services.” 

Opening the Doors

According to newly released 19-page SSA reentry plan, after more than 18 months working from home, senior SSA leadership are beginning to return to their offices, in early December. Employees are scheduled to return to their desks by Jan. 3. Along with in-person appointments, the agency will now also embrace telework. 

The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well. Reentry dates could change with the spread of the delta and omicron variant.

“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess, and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”

Over the next six months, the agency will review metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability, workload, and environmental considerations.

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in an email to AARP, reported by Writer John Waggoner in his Nov. 11 blog posting, “Social Security Takes Steps to Reopen Field Offices.

“We know that those options do not work for everyone, says Tiggemann. “In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agencywide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility,” she said.

AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute,” in Waggoner’s blog posting.

A Sacred Trust – moves to strengthen Social Security

Published on November 8, 2021 in RINewsToday

Almost two weeks ago, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairperson John B. Larson (D-Conn.) threw H.R. 5723, the Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, into the legislative hopper. During its unveiling in the historic committee room of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, the same room where Social Security and Medicare legislation was crafted in the 1930s and 1960, the Connecticut Congressman’s proposal comes on the heels of the Social Security Administration’s 2021 estimate that the trust funds that support the program will be depleted in just 13 years, averting an estimated 20 percent cut in benefits by 2034.

The Sacred Trust Act is the successor to Larson’s original Social Security 2100 Act, which he first introduced in 2014.The House Ways and Means Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the bill in Nov. followed by a markup.

At press time, 194 House Democratic Members are cosponsoring the 100-page House Democratic proposal with no Republican lawmakers crossing the aisle. Almost 40 advocacy groups are endorsing the House Democratic proposal.

At the Oct. 26 news conference unveiling Larson’s legislative proposal, the Connecticut congressman noted that Congress expanded Social Security during the past 50 years and it has been 38 years since lawmakers have taken any comprehensive action to strengthen the program.“ With 10,000 Baby Boomers a day becoming eligible, and with millennials needing Social Security more than any generation, the time for Congress to act is now,” he said.

Taking a Close look at H.R. 5723

According to the legislative fact sheet released at the news conference, H.R. 5723 gives a benefit bump for current and new Social Security beneficiaries. It provides an increase for all beneficiaries (receiving retirement, disability or dependent benefits) equivalent to an average of 2% of benefits to make up for inadequate Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA) since 1983.

Larson’s Social Security proposal also protects Social Security beneficiaries against inflation. It improves the annual COLA formula by adopting a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities. Although the 2022 COLA 5.9%, the largest in years, the average for the past 10 years is roughly 1.5% and in 3 of the past 12 years, beneficiaries received no COLA at all.

It protects low-income works that provides a new minimum benefit stet at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that minimum benefits doe not fall behind. Currently, 5 million seniors live in poverty.

The Sacred Trust Act also contains other provisions that seniors and their advocates have sought for years, including:

  • Improving Social Security benefits for widows and widowers in two income households so they are  not penalized for having two incomes.
  • Ending five-month waiting period to receive disability benefits so those with ALS or other severe disabilities no longer have to wait.
  • Providing caregiver credits for Social Security wages to ensure that caregivers are not penalized in retirement for taking timeout of the workforce to care for children and other dependents.
  • Extending Social Security benefits for students to age 26 and for part-time students.
  • Increasing access to Social Security dependents for children who live with grandparents or other relatives.
  • Requiring Social Security Administration (SSA) to mail annual statements to all workers detailing the FICA contributions they make and projects of their benefits in the future. 
  • Preventing unwarranted closures of SSA offices to improve customer serve
  • Improving access to legal representation for people seeking long-term disability benefits.

H.R. 5723 would pay for strengthening the Social Security Trust Fund by having millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else.Currently, payroll taxes are not collected on an individual wages over $142,800.The legislative proposal would apply payroll taxes to wages above $400,00.This provision would only impact the top 0.04% of wage earners.

Larson’s proposal would also extend the solvency of Social Security by making a significant contribution to the programs solvency, making up more than half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Funds.

Finally, H.R. 5723 would combine the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance with Disability Insurance into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure all benefits will be paid.

It’s Now Time to Fix Social Security 

Larson’s Social Security proposal would “take historic steps to expand Social Security — delivering for retirees, people with disabilities, and their families the first real boost in benefits in 50 years.  The Sacred Trust Act also would bring new revenue into Social Security amid projections that the trust fund will run dry in 2034 if Congress doesn’t take action,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“To those who claim that no one in Washington has the courage to address Social Security’s challenges, or that the only solution is to cut benefits for future generations, Congressman Larson’s bill is a stunning refutation,” states Richtman, noting that he understands that beneficiaries need an increase in monthly checks to meet skyrocketing living expenses. “He knows that the fairest way to strengthen Social Security’s finances is for the wealthy to begin paying their fair share of payroll contributions.  For years, seniors and their advocates have demanded these improvements,” adds Richtman.   

“There is good news for everyone in this bill, which is only fitting, since Social Security touches almost every American’s life.  Beneficiaries have waited long enough for these vital improvements.  Congressman Larson now has nearly 200 cosponsorsin the House.  After seven long years, seniors and their advocates can finally see the finish line, says Richtman.  

With the Democrats controlling the White House, seniors have a good chance of seeing the expansion and strengthening of Social Security.  The proposal has many of President Biden’s promises made during his campaign.  But, like Larson’s previous Social Security Bill, the latest version has no Republican cosigners.

Over the years, poll after poll has shown that the American public strongly supports Social Security, across party and demographic lines.  Larson’s legislative proposal has the support in the House, but will it pass in the upper chamber with Senate Democrats holding a slim majority?  Will voter support influence Republican lawmakers to work across the aisle with Democrats to hammer out an acceptable bipartisan  proposal, as the 2022 mid-term elections get closer?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

“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.