AARP Eye Center
Customer service at the Social Security Administration is going to get worse before it gets better.
That’s the takeaway from the fiscal year 2023 operating plan the agency submitted to Congress Feb. 10, which details how Social Security will use its $14.1 billion budget allocation for the year and acknowledges a “temporary degradation” of some services, particularly for people waiting for decisions on disability benefits or calling the SSA’s national 800 number for help.
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Though less than the $14.8 billion the SSA requested, the new budget represents an increase of $785 million, or 6 percent, from the previous year’s spending on the agency’s administration and operations. AARP and its members fought for Congress to give the SSA a significant funding boost to address the customer service crisis.
“AARP members across the country sent more than 200,000 emails urging Congress to provide the additional funding you requested,” Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP, writes in a Feb. 28 letter to SSA acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi. “It is hard to explain how despite achieving a significant budget increase, SSA believes customer service will decline.”
The SSA says that, in the wake of years of underfunding and historically high staff attrition, most of the new money has, in effect, been spent already. The agency doesn’t expect customer service to start improving before fiscal year (FY) 2024, which begins Oct. 1.
“Approximately 75 percent of the budget increase we received will be required to cover fixed cost increases,” SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann says. These include rent for office space, postage and automatic cost-of-living adjustments to federal workers’ pay.
The cost squeeze, combined with ongoing recovery from the pandemic — which largely shuttered Social Security field offices for more than two years and sped up the staff exodus — means customers will continue to feel the pain of declining service, at least in the short term.
“It is no secret that SSA’s funding has not kept up with its increase in workload,” says Chad Mullen, an AARP government affairs director who focuses on financial security. “Many agencies and organizations have to figure out how to keep up with demand, even in times of tight budgets. With the additional funds from Congress, we would expect to see some customer service improvements, not declines.”
Longer waits on calls, claims
The average wait for an answer on calls to Social Security’s national number, which increased from 14 minutes in 2021 to 33 minutes last year, is projected to rise again to 35 minutes this year amid delays in implementing an overhaul of the agency’s antiquated phone system, according to an SSA summary of the operating plan. The rate of calls resulting in busy signals is expected to rise from 6 percent to 15 percent.
“This is an unacceptable step backward,” LeaMond says.
The plan also projects that “wait times for a disability decision at the initial and appeal levels will increase for a period of time because backlogs will continue to grow while we hire and train new staff.”
As case backlogs soared and staff size shrunk during the pandemic, the average time to get an initial decision on a disability claim stretched from about four months in early 2020 to seven months at the end of 2022, and the SSA estimates it will remain around that level for this year. The estimated average wait for a hearing on a disability appeal is expected to reach more than 15 months, up from 11 months last year.