Note: This story was updated on Nov. 27 to include responses from the Social Security Administration.
A union representing 42,000 employees at the Social Security Administration says the agency’s plans to leverage direct-hire authority and other tools to boost recruitment in 2024 may be undermined by high attrition rates.
According to survey data obtained by Federal Times, nearly 24% of new hires are looking to leave the agency, most in as little as two years, and for various reasons including retirement or to take another job. About 22% of those who said they’re leaving cited feeling overworked. This year, the agency more than doubled the number of new staff brought in during the prior two fiscal years.
Turnover can vary between agencies, though the federal government’s attrition rate surveying 2 million employees has held steady at around 6% in recent years.
“All in all, this indicates that SSA’s short term strategy of focusing resources on hiring, rather than investment in current experienced employees, has not been effective in improving morale and reducing attrition,” said Rich Couture, president of Council 215 of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The data, which reflects feedback for 2022 and 2023, also showed more departing employees were seeking a different job within the government than one outside.
“It is AFGE’s assertion that many of the employees who left would likely have stayed if workloads and work expectations were more reasonable, and if pay, benefits, and working conditions were better and more competitive,” Couture said. “Doing so would also improve retention of new hires as well.”
According to the agency’s long-term plans and $15.5 billion budget request for fiscal 2024, the agency has recognized it’s “confronting historically high employee losses, especially in the disability determination services,” and that “new strategies for employee recruitment and retention” have improved attrition.
“We are addressing these issues in a variety of ways, including hiring more employees, streamlining and automating processes, improving our training and better distributing employee workloads,” said an agency spokesperson in an email. “We remain vigilant on matters involving employee engagement, morale, and equity.”
The spokesperson said that despite onboarding approximately 7,900 new full-time employees in 2023, the agency is “once again unable to hire under a continuing resolution.”
With Congress yet to finalize a budget for 2024 nearly two months into the fiscal year, funding levels for the agency and others remain stagnant, leaving no room to expand programs or move forward on workforce planning. The spokesperson said a lack of funding risks eroding recruitment gains the agency has made, thereby also undermining efforts to even out workloads for existing employees.
“Many of our employees choose to work at SSA because they identify with our public service mission,” said Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi in a memo accompanying the budget. “To retain staff and remain a competitive employer, we are also exploring other longer-term reforms to build and sustain a diverse and skilled workforce to deliver the services Americans depend on for years to come.”
The most recent Federal Employee Viewpoints Survey for SSA backs that up: 90% of employees certified that contributing to the common good is of high importance. Nearly three-quarters say they identify with the mission behind their job, whether its dispensing supplemental income to retirees or approving disability pay for workers.
That mission has only grown, Couture said, while SSA’s workforce has barely held on.
In 2022, the acting commissioner said the agency experienced a 25-year staffing low due to insufficient funding. All the while, employees and AFGE leaders have been calling on the agency to address mounting workloads and stagnant pay.
Pay and job satisfaction dropped 18% and 11% respectively since 2020, according to the survey. And 46% of employees said they believe new hires have the right skills to do their job.
Telework could be one of those things the agency seeks to preserve to stave further declines, Couture said. The agency said in its strategic plans that it will continue to evaluate remote work policies.
However, managers were called back to offices last month, Federal Times reported.
Around 29% of employees reported working remotely, according to the viewpoint survey. Another 36% telework one or two days per week.
“Telework has allowed field offices to boost customer service in situations where the public would not have been served otherwise,” said AFGE council 220 President Jessica LaPointe in June.
Results of the 25,757 voluntary responses in the FEV survey showed low scores in other measures like performance-based recognition, involvement of employees in decisions that affect their work, and perceptions of leadership.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.