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Social Security needs our help now

The Social Security Administration, the federal agency serving the largest number of Americans, is facing its worst crisis in decades, due to underfunding and under-staffing.

SSA currently provides retirement, survivor, or disability benefits to 70 million people each month. The number of beneficiaries went up 21% between 2010 and 2021. Yet, the size of SSA’s workforce shrunk by 13%, and the agency’s budget has been cut by 17% during this same period, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan research institute.

With staffing at its lowest staffing level in more than 25 years, it now takes seven months to get an initial appointment with the SSA according to the CBPP. In addition, more than half of customer service calls go unanswered, and there are 4.2 million backlogged actions.

This year, SSA received just 55% of its requested budget increase, leaving it ill-equipped to upgrade outdated systems and improve hiring and retention.

As head of the union representing nearly 43,000 SSA employees, I can say for certain that SSA needs more money than the administration requested to rebuild the agency and begin providing citizens with the level of service they expect and deserve. We are urging Congress to increase SSA’s budget to $17.4 billion in fiscal 2024.

Unfortunately, agency leaders are making the staffing crisis worse by refusing to abide by an executive order that requires agencies to negotiate with labor unions over subjects such as staffing, technology, and methods and means of performing work that could help attract more candidates.

AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture, the union’s chief negotiator in bargaining that began in April, said the agency “is in the midst of the worst public service crisis in memory caused by historic levels of employee attrition due to uncompetitive pay and benefits, exceedingly low employee morale, and overwhelming workloads.”

A ranking of federal agencies by the Partnership for Public Service named SSA the worst large agency to work for in the federal government. In a recent survey by the American Federation of Government Employees, more than eight in ten employees said they know someone who has sought therapy or medication to deal with work-related stress, while 8% of respondents said they know of a coworker who has committed suicide. Just over half of employees said they will consider leaving within the next year, mostly because of low pay.

“SSA and Congress must address this crisis and implement solutions focused on employee retention and improved customer service,” AFGE Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe told the media in April.

Acting Social Security Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi recently acknowledged the struggles facing the agency, admitting that current funding levels “are not sufficient to make the improvements we had hoped to be able to make” and predicted that the average processing time for disability benefit claims would get longer as the agency works through the backlog.

And with deep cuts on the table in default talks, Social Security could be facing steep budget cuts at the worst possible time. By the agency’s own estimates, retreating to 2022 funding levels — a 6% cut to current funding — would force SSA to close field offices, furlough and lay off staff, institute hiring freezes, and increase the average wait time for initial disability claims decisions from seven months to nine months.

It’s time for Congress to stop starving Social Security of the resources it needs to serve the public efficiently and effectively. SSA leaders must partner with the union to address deteriorating working conditions before more skilled employees walk out the door. Only by working together can we build what we all want — an SSA that delivers for the American people.

Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 750,000 federal and D.C. government workers. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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