Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215 and the union’s chief negotiator with Social Security management, speaks during a rally Wednesday to protest staffing levels at the Social Security Administration.

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215 and the union’s chief negotiator with Social Security management, speaks during a rally Wednesday to protest staffing levels at the Social Security Administration. Erich Wagner / GovExec

Social Security’s staffing crisis is getting dire, union says

Agency management is doing “the bare minimum” to improve workplace conditions amid a daunting workload and morale that is among the worst in the federal government, union officials argue.

Updated: 10 a.m., June 22

The Social Security Administration’s recent hiring spree simply isn’t enough to stem the agency’s decades-long ebb in staffing or to improve agency backlogs, officials with the nation’s largest federal employee union said Wednesday at a rally on Capitol Hill.

The American Federation of Government Employees has been sounding the alarm about the agency’s staffing crisis for more than a year, most recently last April. The Social Security Administration’s staffing levels are at a 25-year-low, despite an ever-increasing number of beneficiaries. That higher workload distributed among fewer workers has led in part to high profile backlogs for service—the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s Government Operations and the Federal Workforce Subcommittee hosted a hearing on customer service at three agencies, including SSA, after the rally Wednesday.

Agency leaders are in the midst of a hiring spree, fueled by more than $700 million in new funding appropriated for fiscal 2023 and a new special hiring authority from the Office of Personnel Management, hoping to relieve some of the pressure on employees.

“We’re using social media, going to job fairs, and getting referrals and resumes from interested applicants through common job application platforms like Handshake and Indeed,” said acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, on an agency podcast last month. “If you or anyone you know is interested in coming to work with us, let them know: we’re hiring and it’s easier to apply. We’re really focused on recruiting and hiring efficiently.”

But AFGE officials said Wednesday that these measures just aren’t enough to make a meaningful difference for the Social Security workforce. AFGE Council 220 President Jessica LaPointe, whose union represents field office, teleservice center and workload support unit workers at the agency, said those new hires are only making “a little above” the minimum wage, not enough for the complexity and size of their workloads.

“With falling budgets and staffing levels to meet public demand, the workers that remain are, in a word, demoralized, left with feeling overworked, underpaid and undervalued,” she said. “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.”

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215 and the union’s chief negotiator with Social Security management, said a poor “self-taught” training model employed by the agency is leaving new hires unprepared for their duties and already looking for work elsewhere. Council 215 represents Office of Hearing Operations staffers.

“We have folks leaving the agency, because the training stinks,” Couture said. “I’d use another word, but we’re in polite company, but the training is terrible. The mentoring, based on an agency focus group report we just got last week, it looked like it was written by us, saying all the same things [we’ve been saying]. There’s not enough time; there’s not enough accommodation to make sure that it actually works. So instead, our folks are telling us, and they’re telling management when they leave, ‘I feel unsupported, I feel unprepared and I feel set up to fail.’ ”

Couture said the agency has been doing “the bare minimum” in contract negotiations. Management continues to resist proposals to offer new benefits to employees, including student loan repayment and child care subsidy programs, that he said are “standard” at other federal agencies. And although the agency has relented on reestablishing a labor-management council to rebuild the relationship between the parties, Couture said the agency’s plan still falls short.

“The problem is that they just want to do the bare minimum: four meetings a year at the national level for three hours apiece,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but we’re not solving any major problems in only 12 hours a year. Our employees, as Jessica and others have stated, more than half of them have a foot out the door. They’re actively looking for a better deal for themselves and for their families. And who can blame them?”

In prepared testimony ahead of the subcommittee hearing, Chad Poist, SSA’s deputy commissioner for budget, finance and management, touted the agency’s hiring efforts, though he acknowledged their impact on service delivery and workloads will be delayed.

“We are making progress with our hiring, even as tight labor markets make it challenging to retain experienced employees and attract talented new ones,” Poist said. “This fiscal year through May 20, we have made more than 2,000 net gains in our full-time permanent workforce, and we expect further gains due to the positive effects of direct hiring authority . . . We expect that starting in fiscal 2024, as new hires become more proficient, they will help us reduce growing backlogs and improve service to the public.”

And in a statement to Government Executive, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle disputed the labor leaders' claim that the agency has been dragging its feet in negotiations.

"Regarding our employee unions, our approach to labor-management relations goes far beyond the 'bare minimum' and we engage often with our unions to meet our bargaining obligations," he said. "SSA voluntarily agreed to immediately modify six articles in the collective bargaining agreement with AFGE last summer; and agreed to renegotiate six additional articles, years ahead of their expiration. AFGE joined SSA in informing all employees that this was an 'important step forward.' SSA and AFGE have now made progress in those negotiations and SSA expects continued progress throughout the mutually agreed upon bargaining schedule. We are committed to good faith negotiations and are optimistic for a deal that will advance both employee satisfaction and the public interest."