Starving The Beast At Social Security
If President Bush cuts the federal work force without cutting layers of middle management Social Security managers must learn to say, “We haven’t gotten to that yet.” Social Security employees have two functions: give people what they want and guard taxpayer money. Monday an employee starts working on claims to get them approved and paid. As the week goes on, she starts responding to the people who want benefits reinstated because they quit their job. Then it’s Friday, and she resolves that next week she is going to look at some cessations and overpayments, after she clears next week’s claims, reinstatements, and recomputations. She always runs out of week before she gets to stewardship actions.
Social Security has two logistics problems about to mesh with each other. Over 50% of its work force is about to retire with no articulated phase in of replacements at the same time Congress is requiring it to encourage Disability beneficiaries to go back to work. Who is going to keep track of people’s work incentives, so their benefits are stopped timely without overpayments?
Social Security does not hire in advance of vacancies and has hired hardly anybody since the 1970s. Social Security employees can retire at age 55. The average age of Social Security employees is 47, but many are 50 or older.
Social Security Claims Representatives get 000 a year to open mail and answer the phone. That sounds great for employees, but their real work piles up. Medical reviews, reviews of disabled people who returned to work, and overpayment collection actions are piled up, because Social Security rushes new claims and reinstatements.
Social Security Offices have no clerks. They were all promoted to Claims Representative or Service Representative . They are “saving money” by not replacing them. Every Claims Representative answers her own phone, opens her own mail, writes her own letters, and files every folder she touches. They get per hour to represent the government – without much quality review – to determine eligibility, to adjudicate points of law, to make binding determinations about overpayment liability, to accept compromise offers, to set the amount of money that will be collected per month for an overpayment; and all of that work waits for them after they open the mail, answer the phone, return messages, and refill the copier and printer.
There are layers of management in local offices and layers of offices between local offices and Regional Commissioners. Some examples of bad personnel practices are the Management Support Specialist and the Technical Expert.
When told to reduce the ratio of supervisors to production people, Social Security created the position Management Support Specialist as a replacement for the Operations Supervisor so it could say that supervisory ranks dropped. A Management Support Specialist manages work loads rather than people.
Millions of disabled people with personality disorders, go back to work. Some report it; some do not. It does not matter. There is no one there to catch them or count their work months. Everybody is answering the phones. By the time Social Security realizes somebody worked long enough to be terminated, they are greatly overpaid. Then advocacy groups, paid grants by Social Security, call Social Security to argue that the wages are really a subsidy! These groups want to get paid for managing the Ticket to Work, so they argue against terminating the benefits of anybody. Social Security Managers accept these subsidies allegations as written. Then an Administrative Law Judge waives any overpayment.
Social Security pours its production resources into new claims and ignores its role as a steward of the public trust. Social Security is not stopping checks when disabled people go back to work, and they almost all do, it is not collecting the resulting overpayments, it is not realizing that people are being awarded workers compensation that should be offset from Social Security benefits, and it is not asking anyone to be responsible for their own lives, because it doesn’t want to offend anybody… and have them call a legislator.
Social Security cannot stop or collect overpayments. Everything is paid based on a premise of eligibility. Disabled people can work 9 months with no cessation. After that they get a check for months they earn less than 0 and no check for months they earn over 0. Some report work. Some don’t. Twenty-six percent of all Social Security disability beneficiaries nationwide are being paid because of mental or personality disorders. They do not report a return to work, or they report it but don’t check back in 9 months. When confronted with their earnings records 18 months later, they do not remember. When told their overpayment, they ask for a waiver. When a waiver is sought, collection stops. One Claims Representative must write a determination about the waiver request. If she denies it, a second Claims Representative must schedule a personal conference. If she also denies waiver, the person asks for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. About a year later, she tells the Administrative Law Judge she didn’t understand the reporting requirement. Social Security kept sending the checks, Social Security waited a long time to tell her about it, and collection of the overpayment would deprive her of the means to pay for her shelter. The Administrative Law Judge almost always grants waiver of collection.
A typical Social Security Office has this ratio: 1 Manager, 1 Assistant Manager, 1 Operations Supervisor, 1 Management Support Specialist, 1 Systems Coordinator, 2 Technical Experts, 9 Claims Representatives, 6 Service Representatives, and no clerks. Seven people GS-12 and higher manage or mentor 15 production people without clerical support. Management spend much of their time printing computer lists of pending claims and asking production people for status, because an Area Director Office, with an Area Director, an Area Administrative Assistant and 2 Management Support Specialists, prints computer lists of pending claims and asks local Managers for status.
What importance does Social Security attach to issues of medical recovery and return to work? Social Security Offices either divide all work among all Claims Representatives but insists they meet new claims goals, or it assigns several to new claims and designates one as the “post-entitlement unit.” Without any clerical support, she is expected to keep track of all disability beneficiaries who have returned to work, interview all persons due for medical review, coordinate with insurance companies about workers compensation, determine the need for payment to a guardian, and conduct personal conferences with all overpaid people who ask that they not have to pay back their overpayment. Termination actions are delayed by her reinstatement actions. While she is reinstating people who quit work, people who started work are accumulating overpayments that Administrative Law Judges will excuse.
If all these people who ask for status were actually impacting the status, there would be no need for people to ask. Claims Representatives do not need anybody to do complex work. They know how to do it. What they do need are some co-workers sharing their work and somebody to open the mail and answer the phone.