Federal administrative judges tasked with overseeing Social Security claims are warning a hiring freeze will further slow an already delayed appeals process.
Citing a figure from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, the Association of Administrative Law Judges said it currently takes 540 days for individuals to receive a hearing on disputed cases, and that number will only climb thanks to current Social Security Administration plans. SSA preemptively ceased most hiring earlier this year in anticipation of funding cuts expected once Congress issues full-year appropriations for fiscal 2017.
President Obama requested $11.1 billion to cover basic administrative costs at SSA in his fiscal 2017 budget, a $522 million decrease over the 2016 spending level. The House’s funding bill that includes SSA would provide the agency with $772 million less than that request, while the Senate measure would allocate $582 million less.
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Under the House measure, SSA said it would process about 400,000 fewer disability claims and hold 200,000 fewer hearings. Employee furloughs of up to two weeks may also be necessary, the agency said.
In fiscal 2016, SSA hired 250 new administrative law judges. However, with support staff hiring frozen, new judges were often left to fend for themselves, according to Marilyn Zahm, AALJ’s president. Without support staff, judges are struggling to process new evidence, file documents and schedule hearings, Zahm said. Absent an unexpected uptick in funding, the hiring freeze will expand to judge positions in fiscal 2017.
“When you don’t have enough staff or staff is spread so thin, it affects a judge's ability to do his or her job,” she said. “Fewer decisions can go out the door.”
SSA’s judges have been forced to do more with less for the last few years, Zahm said, but the impact will be amplified in 2017 due to the across-the-board hiring freeze. The agency has endured cuts throughout much of the Obama administration; SSA’s operating budget has fallen 10 percent since 2010 after adjusting for inflation, according to its own calculations. The number of Social Security beneficiaries has grown 12 percent in the same time period, however, as the baby boomer generation has retired.
Zahm pointed to solutions beyond just bigger budgets to address the shortfalls; the union president said SSA should “reduce the amount of nonsense in the system” by trimming the number of analysts, supervisors and regional offices in favor of more employees “doing actual work.”
“We are micromanaged,” she said.
Though the agency still maintains a network of 1,250 offices nationwide to serve people in person, SSA has shuttered more than 60 field offices and 500 mobile offices since 2010. It backed away from a 2014 proposal to close many more field offices in favor of telephone and digital services.
AALJ, which represents about 1,600 employees, is holding an education and training conference for its members beginning Tuesday. The conference will focus on productivity, including several roundtable discussions on how to do work more efficiently and a presentation on technology tips that will help judges prepare for doing some of the work typically handled by a fully staffed support team.