Union Warns Social Security Service Will Spiral Without Major Changes
More than half of surveyed Social Security Administration employees reported that they are considering leaving the agency and have begun looking for new jobs due to burnout.
This story was updated on April 11 at 10:45 a.m. to include comment from the Social Security Administration.
Officials with the nation’s largest federal employee union on Monday sounded the alarm on the staffing crisis at the Social Security Administration, warning that without a substantial budget increase and fundamental workforce policy changes, customer service could deteriorate even further.
Social Security is one of several public-facing agencies that have been at the heart of a political firestorm over governmental customer service in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans have blamed backlogs in service delivery on telework, while Democrats have pointed to chronic underinvestment in the federal bureaucracy, both technologically and in workforce headcounts.
At the Social Security Administration, staffing levels are at a 25-year low, despite ever increasing numbers of beneficiaries. The number of Social Security beneficiaries is expected to increase another 25% in 2023 alone.
Although Congress appropriated around $785 million in additional spending for Social Security in the fiscal 2023 appropriations package, officials at the American Federation of Government Employees said after inflation, the impact of the new funding was “negligible.” Workloads for agency employees remain unsustainable, and around 1,000 workers are leaving the agency per month due to burnout and insufficient pay, benefits and workplace flexibilities.
Jessica LaPointe, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents field office, teleservice center and workload support unit workers at the agency, said management’s approach to dealing with the staffing crisis is simply making more people want to quit. The union and management are slated to begin renegotiation on six articles of their collective bargaining agreement next week.
“Hiring is down 50% since 2010, promotions are down 25%, and staffing is at a 25-year low,” she said. “Management has assigned workers to intake for most of the work week, so back-end work is now piling up, and managers are resorting to bullying tactics like leveraging leave, micromanagement and surveilling employees’ use of the bathroom to attempt to control back- and front-end productivity of workers . . . Employees are being treated like disposable cogs in a machine, and when an employee burns out and quits, the agency just seeks to replace them.”
LaPointe said that the union’s internal survey found that 8% of respondents knew a coworker who died by suicide at least in part due to work-related stress.
And Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents workers in the Office of Hearing Operations, said efforts to hire the next generation of Social Security employees has stalled out, largely because the agency refuses to rethink its compensation and benefits packages. Since the agency has recalled employees to traditional work sites, there has been no discussion of permanent increases to the availability of telework or remote work, even in situations where an employee’s entire workload is portable.
“The minimum wage in many states is $15 or more, yet many of our technical and specialized positions start at a GS-5, which equates to a base pay of $15.75 per hour,” he said. “There’s no offering of telework or remote work, student loan repayment programs, child care or other subsidies to support workers that are common at other agencies and employers outside of government. Given the lack of pay and benefits, it’s no wonder that SSA has lost, per its own data, almost 4,500 employees in fiscal 2022.”
In a statement, Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle acknowledged that budget increases in the current fiscal year largely covered increases only to "fixed costs," but said that Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi is focused on ramping up the agency's hiring, including through the use of a special faster hiring authority from the Office of Personnel Management. Attrition at the agency is currently down compared to this time last year, he said.
"Our employees are dedicated to providing timely, accurate and respectful service to the millions of people who turn to us for assistance each year," Hinkle said. "Sufficient and sustained funding from Congress is critical to providing quality service. Even with incredible efforts from Social Security employees, we need the president’s full fiscal 2024 budget request to improve service."
Couture said that the agency’s longstanding hostility toward unions and refusal to consider new ways of doing business contributes to its staffing woes.
“It’s not like we’ve waited 'til now to try to stop a retention crisis that we all saw coming,” he said. “We negotiated for increased parking and transit subsidies, but now that it’s in place, management broke that agreement, and we’ve got two unfair labor practice complaints pending on their conduct pertaining to those issues . . . A couple of agency components had expressed a desire to upgrade lower-graded positions within their components, but now we’ve been told that despite the will and the means to achieve those, there are no discussions or plans to proceed on upgrades in any components. The agency simply cannot get out of its own way.”
Edwin Osorio, first vice president of AFGE Council 220, said at least part of the blame can be placed at the feet of Kijakazi, who he said has shown a lack of leadership while atop the agency.
“We had a council meeting that Commissioner Kijakazi joined, where she made it very clear that any issues that we wished to address, we had to go to the Office of Labor-Management Relations, so she created a barrier from the onset between the union and herself,” Osorio said. “In addition, employees continue to feel detached and dispirited in their jobs, and as a leader, she has failed to acknowledge it. She doesn’t want to do anything about it, and we’ve provided her not only with anecdotal evidence but also numerics showing the disenchantment.”
Hinkle disputed the union's characterization of Kijakazi's work on labor-management relations, citing the agency's work to reach a deal on return to traditional worksites last year.
"We have found mutually beneficial solutions to important problems through good faith engagement by both the unions and management," he said. "Under Acting Commissioner Kijakazi’s leadership, we were one of the first federal agencies to reach agreements with all our unions on resuming in-person service in our offices in April 2022. We have reached 47 mid-term agreements with our labor unions, and we secured collective bargaining agreements with two of our unions and will begin a partial renegotiation with our third, AFGE, next week."
Although Social Security management indeed reached a deal with AFGE on reentry in January 2022, that was predicated on the idea that the union would continue to negotiate provisions with individual agency components prior to the return to offices. But in April 2022, when employees were instructed to return to their work sites, union leaders said that in most instances, the agency flatly rejected most of the union's proposals.
“Partnership is a funny word,” Couture said Monday. “SSA is fond of calling us partners, and it’s something that the current administration wants to see between labor and management at agencies. But the very fact we’re on this call, speaking to the media and the public with regards to the conditions of our bargaining unit at SSA is evidence that we do not have a partnership. If we did, we’d be solving these matters in-house, without having to resort to going outside the agency to effect change.”