The Trump administration’s bid to streamline agency operations bumped up against the human factor on Thursday as the Social Security Administration’s quiet plan to close a suburban Washington field office provoked a demonstration.
Some 60-70 mostly union protesters gathered in front of the Social Security Office in Arlington, Va., chanting “Not no, but hell no!” in response to the plan to shutter the decades-old office by June 21.
The motive for the closing, according to top American Federation of Government Employees officials, is pressure from the White House and budget director Mick Mulvaney’s April 2017 guidance asking agencies to propose ways to streamline and consolidate operations for greater efficiency.
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“The Trump administration wants to continue to close community offices and push people online,” AFGE National President J. David Cox told Government Executive at the midday rally. “But let’s face it, everybody’s not online. Many people on disability making decisions and elections—at what age to draw Social Security, which, once you make an election, is for life—can’t get all the information from a computer. They need human interaction.”
Asked for comment, SSA spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann told Government Executive that “Social Security will consolidate its Arlington, Va., office, located at 1401 Wilson Blvd., with other local offices, due to an expiring lease. The landlord was not interested in renewing the lease, and [the General Services Administration] has been unable to find suitable replacement space.” She added that residents living in the Arlington service area may conduct business at any Social Security office, including offices in Alexandria, Fairfax and the District of Columbia.
“Most Social Security services do not require a visit to an office,” she said. “People may create their ‘My Social Security’ account, a personalized online service.”
But that explanation was challenged by protestors and by Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who on May 1 wrote to acting SSA Inspector General Gail Stallworth Stone seeking an investigation to determine whether the SSA’s decision to close its Arlington office complied with legal requirements.
“H.R. 1625, the Fiscal Year 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act, contained language noting that your office is reviewing decisions to close field offices, including whether SSA has followed internal procedures in proposing consolidation, notifying the public and considering feedback from public input,” Beyer wrote. “The language specifically states that while the inspector general review is ongoing, the acting commissioner should not make any final decisions related to field office locations under review.”
(The SSA has been run for 15 months by acting commissioner Nancy Berryhill, whose status has become controversial in Congress.)
“Closure of this office will cause my constituents to suffer from the lack of in-person services, especially to a Metro accessible office,” Beyer continued.
Neither Beyer nor the speakers at the rally accepted the SSA’s explanation that it couldn’t reach a deal with the landlord, Monday Properties.
“The building is scheduled for redevelopment, but it’s not imminent, and space in close proximity is readily available,” Arlington County Board Member Christian Dorsey told Government Executive before addressing the rally. “We can’t afford to lose this critical outreach component,” Dorsey said in his speech. “Arlington office space right now is not expensive, and there are plenty of opportunities for SSA” to find a “space that makes sense,” he said in pledging to reverse the decision. “It speaks of poor business planning by SSA, and it speaks of insensitivity.”
A spokesman for GSA, which works with SSA on building space, on Thursday told Government Executive he could not answer the questions and to contact the SSA. A spokeswoman for landlord Monday Properties did not respond to inquiries.
Speakers at the rally stressed that 10,000 Americans every day are turning 65, and cutting access to field offices is tantamount to cutting a benefit that recipients have paid for. SSA since 2010 has closed 64 field offices, according to the advocacy group Social Security Works. The group cited polls showing that 84 percent of Americans oppose office closures.
Since 2010, SSA has cut administrative expenses by 10 percent and reduced its workforce by 3,500 employees. The trend began after President George W. Bush attempted to privatize parts of Social Security, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the AFGE’s National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals. Also closed in recent years were 533 part-time “contact stations” intended as outreach efforts, he added.
Field offices were recently closed in Chicago and Milwaukee, and one in Baltimore is scheduled to shut down in June, he noted. Many of them are in high-minority neighborhoods, he said.
“SSA is lying about the reason for the closure” of the Arlington office, Skwierczynski said. “They point to bogus reasons like urban renewal, which is not happening for years,” he told reporters. “The real reason is to save money and shift to internet.” But “the internet is not an answer,” he said. While many people can use online services successfully, “we found error after error in which the public are screwing themselves out of disability benefits.”
Nor is SSA following its own guidelines for considering a consolidation, he said, citing the need to weigh standard demographic metrics, the impact on the community, a 180-day notice requirement and a transition plan.
Kris Kramer, the first vice president of AFGE local 1923, which represents the workers in Arlington, said SSA had told her that the landlord wanted to do something different, but that no one will talk about GSA’s approach.
“I was shocked, then confused, then angry” when I heard of the closing,” said Social Security recipient Julian Blair. The Arlington office already is “is understaffed, there are long lines, and people have to go back two to three times,” he said. “We paid for our benefits, and we also paid for decent service.”
Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, said, “Congress should take steps not just to not close offices, but to open more offices so there’s no waiting in lines or holds on calls. We’re at the wealthiest moment in our history.”
Though the Trump administration had proposed a small cut in the SSA’s nearly $13 billion operating budget, the omnibus budget bill passed in March gave the agency a $480 million hike, much of it for information technology modernization and reducing the backlog of disability hearings.
In its budget justification for fiscal 2019, SSA noted that it is working with GSA to reduce its real property footprint. “Our field offices cannot continue to accommodate growing workloads unless the agency further automates its business processes wherever possible and offers more online services,” it said. “As individuals accept and use the internet to conduct more complex and sensitive transactions, secure online service options are essential to providing a quality experience.”
AFGE leader Cox told the crowd that his members regularly protest “against violence, bigotry, harassment, low pay and privatization, so you’d think that closing a Social Security office wouldn’t get on the radar. But these people showed up. Make no mistake, our 700,000 in the AFGE and 12 million in AFL-CIO are going to fight night and day to keep every Social Security office open to the public and serving your needs.”