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Shrinking staffs imperil missions at key agencies

Jun. 18, 2012 - 08:09AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
The IRS saw a 6 percent staffing cut last year.
The IRS saw a 6 percent staffing cut last year. ()

The 0.5 percent decline in the federal workforce last year — the first in five years — may not seem like much. But at the agencies where the cuts are most pronounced, the impact is big.

The Social Security Administration — which saw its staff shrink 6 percent last year — warned Congress last month it cannot keep up with swelling workloads as baby boomers retire and more Americans file for benefits.

At the IRS, which also saw a 6 percent staffing cut last year, fewer tax enforcement agents translates to $4 billion a year in uncollected revenues, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees. The IRS has also cut customer service staff who help people pay their taxes.

“Everything is taking longer,” NTEU President Colleen Kelley said in an interview. “There are fewer examinations being done, fewer employees to help taxpayers get on payment plans, and the IRS is collecting less revenue, which means less money to fund every other agency.”

In most cases, agencies are cutting their workforces to help meet budget constraints. At some places, that means freezing hiring and not replacing employees who retire. At others — such as the IRS — buyouts have been offered to trim the ranks.

With the White House and Congress facing increasing pressure to cut the deficit — and steep cuts looming in January as part of the sequestration process — budgets are certain to get even tighter. And some experts fear Congress will continue cutting budgets without scaling back agencies’ missions, which will force some agencies to cut staffing to dangerous levels.

“If you keep ratcheting down, at some point something breaks,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. “That is, unless you have a clear plan [to end certain missions or significantly change how agencies operate], and I’m not seeing a lot of clear plans. What’s being done is kind of ad hoc — you do what you need to keep things running.”

Palguta said the government has seen the tragic results of cutting back on agency staffing and funding before.

“Unfortunately, it keeps going until we run into a [Federal Emergency Management Agency] that can’t respond to [Hurricane] Katrina, or the 9/11 Commission says part of the problem was that we didn’t have enough people in intelligence agencies to pick up on the 9/11 threat,” Palguta said.

SSA cuts hours

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told the Senate Finance Committee on May 17 that staffing cuts are already hurting his agency’s ability to serve the public. To deal with a nearly 4,500-employee decline in 2011, SSA had been relying on overtime and having employees stay late to interview and help members of the public.

But budget cuts have forced SSA to cut out most overtime. SSA’s $11.5 billion fiscal 2012 budget is about $1 billion less than Obama requested, and about $400 million less than the agency had in fiscal 2010. As a result, Astrue said, SSA began closing field offices to the public a half-hour early each day to make sure employees finish up their interviews during their regular work hours.

And Astrue fears he may be forced to cut staffing even further — between 2,500 and 3,000 employees this year and another 2,000 or more in fiscal 2013. That would force SSA to close its offices even earlier next year, he said.

“I recently visited our Springfield, Mass., office, and the waiting room was filled to capacity,” Astrue said. “The office has lost 11 employees, 19 percent of its staff, in the last few years. We are doing what we can to assist this office, including implementing a video connection with another office, but few offices have excess capacity to help.”

Astrue said SSA has tried to pursue automation whenever possible, but much of SSA’s work still requires people. And even though a new telephone system that can more efficiently route callers to SSA employees is being rolled out, Astrue fears a lack of staffing will seriously hurt SSA’s ability to answer calls. He expects the percentage of busy signals will double from 3 percent in fiscal 2011 to 6 percent in fiscal 2012, and the average time it takes to answer a call will increase from three minutes to nearly five minutes.

Astrue has been trying to beat down SSA’s backlog in the last several years, but said progress has slowed over the last year.

Less taxpayer help from IRS

Kelley said the IRS’ ability to serve the public has also been hampered by its nearly 7,000-employee cuts. About 40 percent of those cuts, or nearly 2,800 employees, came from the ranks of customer service workers who answer phone calls from the public or help people face-to-face in taxpayer assistance centers.

And with fewer employees staffing taxpayer assistance centers, Kelley said, lines are growing. As at SSA, the IRS has shortened hours at its assistance centers to deal with the reduced staffing, Kelley said.

“Many locations stop giving numbers [to walk-in taxpayers] at 1:30 or 2, because the line is so long they knew it would take till 5 to service all of them,” she said.

Kelley said 107 of the IRS’ 398 assistance centers now have two or fewer employees. Some smaller locations don’t have even a single employee assigned full-time, she said, so they only open one day a week when an employee from another center can come in. This particularly hurts elderly taxpayers who rely on the IRS’ help to file their taxes, she said.

Kelley said the IRS this year told the public it was cutting assistance center hours in some places, and encouraged them to try to get their questions answered over the phone.

But the IRS’ call centers have also had trouble. Beth Tucker, the IRS’ deputy commissioner of operations support, told the Senate Finance Committee April 26 that IRS employees answered 11 million calls from the public during this year’s tax season, down from 13 million a year before. And 68 percent of taxpayers were able to get an IRS employee on the phone this year, down from 75 percent last year.

“This is largely a result of reduced budget resources provided in the FY 2012 budget as enacted, which means fewer assistors available to answer taxpayer phone calls,” Tucker said.

Hiring freeze at Justice

The Justice Department’s hiring freeze has particularly hit its Offices of the U.S. Attorneys and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Justice has been under a partial hiring freeze since January 2011, and said in an email to Federal Times that the freeze will likely continue into fiscal 2013.

“Throughout this process, the goal has been to retain staffing levels necessary to maintain the core missions of the department without furloughs or reductions-in-force,” Justice said. “We recently authorized the hiring of 514 positions for U.S. attorneys to fill critical shortages in district offices throughout the country so as not to have negative effects on our core mission activities. We want to make sure that in tight budget times, we keep a close eye not only on how many people we hire, but where we hire them.”

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