Social Security Administration judges who rule on disability benefits appeals are expected to issue 500 to 700 decisions each year, a number that many of the judges struggle to meet, according to a recent government watchdog report.
The expectation, published in 2007 to reduce the agency’s case backlog, has had varying degrees of success from year to year, with 81 percent of the administrative law judges meeting that expectation in 2019, but just 18 percent hitting the target in 2020, according to the June 17 Government Accountability Office report.
Nearly 90 percent of the judges that GAO talked to classified the expectation as too high.
“Judges in selected hearing offices cited a variety of factors affecting their ability to meet the annual expectation. The top factor cited by judges GAO surveyed was the size of case files, which have increased five-fold on average since the expectation was established, according to SSA data,” the report said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic introduced other factors in 2020, resulting in fewer hearings being conducted.”
In fact, the average length of a disability appeal file went from 166 pages in 2008 to 940 in 2020, in spite of the fact that the number of cases filed decreased over that time.
And even judges who met annual case expectations told GAO that they worried about the quality of the work produced, as they had to work quickly to meet metrics.
Beginning in 2014, the judges were expected to schedule 50 cases per month, in order to achieve the annual disposition expectation, as some cases are withdrawn and receive no disposition.
Under that metric, the judges would be required to hear at least two cases every workday, in addition to their preparation and deliberation work, and without consideration for any time off during that period.
Failure to meet that monthly expectation could result in anything from a directive to a reprimand to withdrawn approval for telework.
Many administrative law judges who spoke to GAO said that withdrawal of telework approval was the primary action taken when they failed to meet monthly expectations, though the agency said that it did not use telework in a punitive way.
Still, SSA has drawn criticism over the past few years for its approach to teleworking employees, especially after eliminating a 2014 telework program for operations employees in late 2019.
Federal research and employees themselves, however, have reported that their productivity increased with the ability to telework, making the withdrawal appear counterintuitive to the goal of increasing caseloads and reducing backlogs.
The GAO report noted that in 1999 the agency had entirely eliminated a case backlog that resurged in 2000, due in part to high staff turnover at the agency.
Staffing numbers from 2007 — when the caseload expectation was put in place — to 2020 show a similar workforce challenge, as the agency had fewer employees in September 2020 than at any time since 2007. Staffing peaked at nearly 70,000 employees in 2010 and has since fallen to just over 61,000 in 2020.
SSA leadership has also failed to produce concrete evidence for why the 500 cases per year metric was set in the first place, according to the report.
Though the agency said that it had based the number on 2007 evaluations of what a standard administrative law judge accomplished in a year, those evaluations were not publicized or provided to GAO, and the watchdog found evidence to the contrary during that time period.
“Specifically, the percentage of judges who decided 500 or more cases was 34 percent in fiscal year 2005, 41 percent in 2006, and 43 percent in 2007,” the report said.
The agency has not provided frontline judges with its rationale for the 50 cases a month metric set in 2014, meaning that employees were not provided with a comprehensive explanation for why they are asked to perform at such rates.
SSA has since repeatedly declined to conduct additional caseload evaluations to determine if the metric of 500 dispositions per year is still reasonable. GAO did not conduct such an evaluation either.
“The Association of Administrative Law Judges is disappointed that the GAO refused to do what was actually needed — conduct an actual time study,” group President Melissa McIntosh told Federal Times.
“To say that the Social Security Administration ‘did not document the expectation-setting process’ is far too generous. As we know, SSA has no data to support its onerous production standards. It’s not that they did not document it … they don’t have it. The American public deserves better than arbitrary production quotas for life and death disability claims.”
GAO recommended that SSA establish a process for reviewing caseload expectations more frequently and consider reevaluating expectations.
And while the agency generally agreed with GAO, it only promised to be more communicative with employees, “as with any changes to expectations or new measures or metrics for our employees.”
SSA promised to hold sessions with employees and labor organizations “to better understand and consider the impact of current expectations on their employees” and to “consider this impact as a potential factor when determining whether or how to modify expectations.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.