If you’ve ever experienced a long wait to get help from the Social Security Administration, the agency has some good news for you: the pace is about to pick up a bit. Last week, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul announced two steps that should help make a dent in the problem: Social Security will re-open field offices nationwide on Wednesday afternoons starting on January 8, restoring closings that were put in place in 2012. The agency also will hire 1,100 new employees to provide service on the national 800 number and in its processing centers, where paperwork is handled. The agency is currently bringing on board 100 new processing center employees and approximately 500 new teleservice representatives for the 800 number. Some additional hires will be made later in 2020.
That’s the good news. What’s less clear is how Social Security will fund this expansion, since the agency is not receiving additional funds from Congress to handle it. Congress has cut Social Security’s budget nearly 11% between 2010 and 2019, after adjusting for inflation. During the same time, the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by more than 16%.
Social Security experts worry that this could turn out to be a case of robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul. While field office doors have been closed on Wednesday afternoons since late 2012, staff members did not simply go home. They use that time to process paperwork from their caseloads. This isn’t red tape stuff, but important papers that need to get pushed on things like benefit claims.
The average wait time to see a claims agent in field offices was 26.5 minutes in fiscal 2018—37% higher than in 2010, according to the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, an organization composed of field office and telecommunications service center managers. Contacting Social Security through its toll-free number can be difficult, and 15% of callers heard a busy signal when calling during fiscal 2018, according to the council.
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