Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue (File photo / Getty Images)
The Social Security Administration is preparing for what could be a massive wave of early retirements — one that could further weaken the struggling agency.
SSA on Aug. 6 offered early retirements to 9,000 employees — almost 14 percent of its 65,000-person workforce. The agency did not say how many it expects or hopes will take the offer, and declined to answer questions about how the cuts might affect the agency’s operations.
But SSA has already been dealing with steep workforce cuts in recent years. Its staff dropped by nearly 4,500 employees in 2011, and another 650 in the first three months of 2012.
These cuts come as the agency’s workload is exploding due to retiring baby boomers and a dismal economy that is driving more people to seek disability benefits. Nearly 8.2 million people received benefits from SSA in June. That figure is up from 8.1 million a year earlier and 7.8 million in 2010 — a 346,000-person increase in two years.
“We just can’t sustain this kind of loss of staff, and provide the same level of service,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents SSA’s field operations staff. “Any loss, obviously, will have an adverse effect on agency operations.”
SSA is far from the only agency offering early retirements or otherwise cutting its workforce in the face of tight budgets. The Partnership for Public Service and the consulting firm Grant Thornton last week released a report that found 72 percent of senior human resources officials in the federal government expect their staffs will decline in the near future.
“This is not a one-year phenomenon,” said Partnership president and CEO Max Stier. “We’re looking at multiyear cutbacks.”
And with potentially severe budget cuts coming — whether through the sequestration process that stemmed from Congress’ failure to reduce the deficit or through other efforts — Stier said that Congress and the public must start thinking about what a decline in the federal workforce is going to mean.
“It’ll mean SSA can’t serve the public in the way we want it to,” Stier said. “Less access to the public, longer delays in responses. It’s really important that the government communicate what our choices and options are, at SSA and elsewhere. What will people lose if the government isn’t funded?”
SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue has previously warned against gutting his workforce. Astrue told the Senate Finance Committee in May that last year’s steep staffing decline forced SSA to make its remaining field employees stay late to interview and help members of the public.
But budget cuts soon made offering overtime a near-impossibility. SSA’s $11.5 billion budget for fiscal 2012 is about $1 billion less than President Obama requested, and about $400 million less than the agency had in fiscal 2010.
As a result, SSA began closing field offices to the public a half-hour early each day to make sure employees finish their interviews during regular work hours.
Astrue told lawmakers that tight budgets will force him to cut between 2,500 and 3,000 employees this year, and another 2,000 or more in fiscal 2013. This would force SSA to close its offices even earlier next year, he said.
Astrue predicted that staffing declines will seriously impair SSA’s ability to answer calls from the public.
And Skwierczynski fears deeper cracks will surface after this round of early retirements, which must be finished by Sept. 30.
“If there’s a lot of early-out activity ... in operations in particular, you’re going to have a lot of adverse impact,” Skwierczynski said.
Skwierczynski said processing times for disability cases — currently at 111 days on average — will likely increase if SSA’s workforce is cut further. Hard-fought progress toward reducing the backlog of pending disability insurance claims — now at 861,000 cases — would likely be lost, he said.
He also predicts SSA will permanently close offices around the country due to tight budgets and a lack of staff. This will mean seniors and disabled people — especially in rural, isolated areas — will lose the ability to talk face-to-face with an SSA employee. SSA has already announced at least 13 office closures so far this year, including an office in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Steve Clifton, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said he is afraid that the early retirements could hit small offices around the country unevenly. Some offices might only have one or two employees retire; others could potentially lose half their staffs. And with SSA’s budget cut to the bone and the agency scrambling to cut its payroll, Clifton doubts those offices will have many opportunities to replace those losses.
“It’s going to hit some offices harder than others,” he said. “And since they’re not doing replacement hiring, you’re going to have really disjointed services in some places. It’s really a mess.”
But early retirements might be the least-bad option for the agency, Clifton said.
“They’re probably stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “If they don’t offer early outs and the  budget is poor — or even worse, if sequestration kicks in — what are your options? Are you looking at furloughing? Perhaps their strategy is, maybe we can avoid furloughs.”
Mass furloughs at SSA could be looming if the roughly $109 billion in sequestration cuts do kick in Jan. 2. A report last month from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, predicted that SSA would have to furlough its entire workforce for about six weeks next year if sequestration takes effect.
Clifton said he couldn’t predict how many of the 9,000 eligible employees might take the early retirement offer. But he said that some employees in offices that have already lost several people and are struggling to handle the workload with fewer resources may choose to throw in the towel.
“Is there going to be a tipping point to this?” Clifton said. “In this economy, it’s anybody’s guess. But if my neighbor goes, and I’m eligible, maybe I go, too, because I’d have to process the same workload with fewer people.”