Woodlawn, Maryland — On a gray Wednesday afternoon, dozens of Social Security Administration employees and labor union leaders gathered in front of the agency’s headquarters outside Baltimore to air grievances of understaffing, mounting workloads and persisting attrition.
Decked out in bright red shirts and chanting “stand, unite, fight,” workers from across the country heard from leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees while cars drove by in the drizzle, occasionally honking or fist-pumping in support.
“Employees are overloaded, overworked and underpaid,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley to the crowd. “... And thousands of workers are expected to depart in the coming year.”
Last week, union leaders held a town hall asking Congress to approve $16.5 billion in “emergency funding” to support the agency’s dwindling workforce.
Social Security has 4,000 fewer field offices and teleservice centers than it did 12 years ago and employment is at a 25-year low, said Sherry Jackson, AFGE Council 220′s legislative action coordinator during the Oct. 20 town hall.
At the same time, SSA’s workloads have expanded, with the number of Social Security beneficiaries increasing by 21% since 2010, according to statistics by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Sufficient and sustained funding is critical to providing quality service,” said a spokesman from the agency in a statement to Federal Times. “Congress recognized our challenges and included additional funding in the current Continuing Resolution through Dec. 16, which helps fund fixed cost increases pending a final appropriation. The nearly $100 million in additional funding during the CR period allows us to continue our hiring efforts and provide overtime to help address our workloads.”
The office also said the additional funding will allow it to maintain service while Congress works to reach agreement on fiscal year 2023 funding.
“Even with incredible efforts from Social Security employees, we need the President’s full FY 2023 budget request to improve service,” the spokesman said.
The agency said it has reached 47 mid-term agreements with its labor unions and secured collective bargaining agreements with two unions and will begin renegotiation with a third.
“It’s either we do something, we become active, or we will perish [as an agency], Angela Digeronimo told Federal Times at the rally. Digeronimo serves as a regional vice president for council 220. “We cannot do this work without the employees. We cannot do this work if the offices are not adequately staffed.”
AFGE leaders said understaffing has been exacerbated by meager budgets and COVID-19 disruptions that have stretched the department thin, contributing to backlogs for agency employees and extreme wait times for Americans seeking benefits.
“I think about the people who need us — the people who are waiting for their benefits,” said Jessica LaPointe, president of council 220, which represents more than 26,500 employees in Social Security Field Operations.
In August, the House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means wrote a letter to acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi saying constituents across several states were waiting for hours outside of field offices and even sleeping outside overnight to keep their spots in line due to delays.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and 15 other members of Congress also wrote to the White House, urging President Joe Biden to nominate a commissioner and deputy commissioner, two longstanding vacancies at the agency.
“The Social Security Administration needs more staff and better resources to meet the increasing needs of Ohio’s seniors and those with disabilities,” Brown said in a statement to Federal Times.
Some policy analysts have agreed that part of the blame falls on Congress’s failure to adequately fund the agency, which serves monthly benefits to more than 65 million Americans and hit major hurdles when its field offices shuttered during the pandemic.
Since offices reopened and workers return to in-person work in March, part of the union’s complaint has been a lack of continued flexibility for telework, which LaPointe said made workers more productive due to the lack of distractions in an office.
“To be crystal clear, this isn’t about employee convenience,” said LaPointe at the rally. “But instead, a question of efficient service delivery. At its core, as we know all too well, this is a fundamental need to make the agency more efficient, effective and responsive to the public.”
The 2011 Budget Control Act also sets caps on discretionary funding that has led to cuts in SSA’s operating funds, though it’s no longer in effect.
Still, the agency’s operating budget increased only 2.5% in 2022, a fraction of the appropriations proposed by the House and Senate that would’ve increased SSA’s funding by 9% and 8% respectively — both still lower than the 10% increase in President Biden’s 2022 budget.
SSA also ranked the third lowest on the Partnership for Public Service’s most recent annual list of best agencies to work at, which measured employee satisfaction based on responses to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
AFGE’s SSA General Committee represents a collective of 43,000 Social Security employees in a variety of offices and roles across the country.
Agency workers were also joined by the Baltimore Teachers Union, Metro Baltimore Council AFL-CIO unions, and Social Security Works, a group that lobbies for progressive Social Security reforms.
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.