Congress may force the Social Security Administration to cut back on services and furlough employees, according to the agency, which pointed to proposals in both the House and Senate to reduce its funding.
Appropriations bills under consideration in both the House and Senate would spur delays in retiree benefit processing, a spike in the backlog of disability claims, reductions in field office hours and longer wait times for those calling Social Security for customer service, the agency told Government Executive in response to inquires about the congressional proposals. The measures could lead the agency to force employees to take unpaid leave for up to two weeks and to the shuttering of service locations.
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 ask, while the Senate measure would allocate $582 million less.
Under the House measure, SSA would process about 400,000 fewer disability claims and hold 200,000 fewer hearings, the agency said, and may have to furlough employees up to two weeks.
SSA has instituted a hiring freeze on most positions across the agency in anticipation of the funding cuts that would take place as soon as October. Perhaps the best-case scenario for SSA would stem from Congress approving a stopgap continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown just weeks before the election, but SSA said even that outcome would necessitate attrition measures.
“SSA has taken this step to avoid starting FY 2017 with a larger staff than can be supported with frozen -- or worse -- funding levels that cannot support the level of customer service the agency is now providing and that the public expects,” the agency said of its hiring freeze. It added SSA would move quickly to fill vacancies left open by the freeze if Congress restores adequate funding.
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.
Though the agency still maintains a network of 1,250 offices across the country to serve people in person, SSA has shuttered more than 60 field offices and 500 mobile offices since 2010. It backed away from a proposal to close many more field offices in favor of telephone and digital services, and now warns of dire consequences without a bigger budget.
“Without adequate funding in 2017 and beyond,” SSA said, “many Americans may wait longer to receive the benefits they have been planning to use during their retirement, and the most vulnerable of our citizens will have to wait even longer for disability claims decisions, causing more hardship and frustration for millions of families.”
Wally Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees SSA council, decried the proposed funding levels as “irresponsible.”
“Ten furlough days equates to a two-week shutdown of Social Security,” Skwierczynski said. “This means that for two weeks, we will not take retirement, survivor, or disability claims.”
Current appropriations are set to expire Oct. 1. A bipartisan budget agreement struck in late 2015 set funding levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, though House Republicans have pushed for spending bills rife with policy riders and cuts considered unpalatable by the Democratic lawmakers and the Obama administration. The Senate, meanwhile, has moved its appropriations measures with mostly bipartisan support.