President Biden nominated former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley for commissioner of the Social Security Administration four months ago.

President Biden nominated former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley for commissioner of the Social Security Administration four months ago. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A tall task awaits O’Malley at Social Security

If confirmed, the former governor faces a likely uphill battle to lobby Congress for funding and to reverse a decades-long decline in staffing to alleviate workloads for a workforce in crisis.

As former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley waits for senators to decide whether he can begin his new job atop the Social Security Administration, agency leaders and union representatives warn of crises on multiple fronts.

On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee will host O’Malley for his confirmation hearing, four months after President Biden nominated him to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration. For more than two years, the agency has operated under acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, who has weathered multiple controversies, from long lines upon the resumption of in-person service at Social Security’s more than 1,200 local field offices, a backlog in pending disability applications and congressional calls to cut back on workplace flexibilities like telework, to, most recently, an improper payments scandal.

A common thread runs through each of Social Security’s major challenges: while the number of Social Security beneficiaries has steadily risen over the years, the agency’s headcount of employees recently reached a 25-year low. Although a $700 million funding increase in fiscal 2023 allowed the agency to engage in a hiring spree to reverse the downward trend, Kijakazi told lawmakers last month that a combination of the short term continuing resolution—which keeps funding at current levels until mid-November—along with an impending pay increase for federal workers and rising costs of rent at regional offices forced her to institute a hiring freeze.

“SSA cannot continue to do more with less,” Kijakazi said at a House subcommittee hearing devoted to the improper payments issue. “To achieve the high-quality service our beneficiaries deserve, we need sufficient, sustained funding from Congress, and we have not had that for the better part of the last decade. The current continuing resolution through Nov. 17 has returned us to a full freeze on our hiring and overtime until we have our annual fiscal 2024 funding.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, whose union represents Social Security employees in a variety of jobs, has long warned that unless the agency drastically ramps up hiring and improves pay and benefits, workers will leave due to burnout.

“With falling budgets and staffing levels to meet public demand, the workers that remain are, in a word, demoralized, left feeling overworked, underpaid and undervalued,” said AFGE Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe last June. “And an AFGE member poll shows over 50% of respondents are still considering leaving the agency within the next year. The reason: employees are citing toxic levels of work-related stress as they struggle to control impossible workloads.”

AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture, who served as the union’s chief negotiator with management over revisions to the parties’ union contract, described conditions at the agency “pretty much the status quo” Wednesday.

Kijakazi said last month that the hiring surge led to the hiring of 7,800 new employees at Social Security in fiscal 2023, although with attrition, the net gain in headcount prior to the hiring freeze was only 3,200, bringing the total agency workforce to nearly 60,000 employees. But union officials have warned that without revamping training and compensation for employees, high attrition will continue to undermine the effort to staff up.

Labor and management agreed last August to work together on a plan to improve the agency’s training offerings for employees, though that process will be O’Malley’s responsibility to oversee if he is confirmed.

Asked what a Social Security Administration would look like under GOP-drafted appropriations legislation for fiscal 2024, which proposed a 30% cut to the agency, Kijakazi spoke bluntly.

“If we receive a cut of that magnitude, what would happen is that many of the offices in your districts would have to close,” she said. “We would not have the staff to be able to operate those offices, or the funds to be able to pay for the rent for those offices.”