Lawmakers and employee groups are pushing back against plans by the Social Security Administration to reduce in-person assistance and increase digital communications.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking member on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said at a hearing June 18 that the administration has been trying for years to force beneficiaries to use the internet or the phone instead of in-person services. While I don’t object to providing services this way where it’s appropriate, I am concerned that the SSA has not sought public input, and it is not taking into account the impact on the beneficiaries they are supposed to be serving,” Collins said.
Over the last few years the Social Security Administration has had to close 64 field offices and 533 temporary mobile offices.
The future of the SSA is a smaller workforce, fewer office locations and more contractors, according to a draft strategic vision being produced for the Social Security Administration by the National Academy of Public Administration. The draft focuses on using digital services to help offset the losses of funding.
Sen. Bill Nelson , D-Fla., chairman of the committee, said the Social Security Administration is struggling with the loss of more than 11,00 employees over the last three years and billions in congressional budget cuts.
But while the agency should find ways to cut back it needs to work harder to involve the community before making decisions on office closures.
“At a time when the agency is pushing more people online to conduct their business, they don’t even examine whether people in the vacated communities use the Internet in high numbers. In sum, it’s a process that lacks rigor, transparency and frankly sufficient information to make a real decision,” Nelson said.
Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE's National Council of Social Security Field Office Operations Locals, said SSA should work to incorporate field offices and digital services in its future plans. But SSA is also working on incorporating the draft vision into its long0-term plans.
“People not only want face to face service at SSA, they need it,” said Skwierczynski. “Only through the work of a trained and experienced field office employee, can beneficiaries be assured their benefits will be accurately determined and appropriate for the individual circumstances of each beneficiary.”
Nancy Berryhill, the deputy commissioner for operations at SSA, said at the hearing the agency was “fully committed” to keeping field offices but the agency also needs “adequate, sustained and practicable” funding levels to maintain services such as field offices.
“We must continuously examine our structure in efforts to balance service across the country and provide greater opportunities for service delivery,” Berryhill said. This sometimes results in the closure of field offices or the creation of new digital services, she added.