Waiting Games

We already know that Social Security, and those who defend everyone’s mandatory contribution to the program are out of touch with younger Americans (and hopelessly at that).  But now we are seeing just how inattentive they are to the very people who rely on them.  Today in Forbes, The Real Social Security Crisis: Service  explains this in detail.  As usual, the key points are in italics and my remarks are in parentheses.

You may been relieved to hear that the Social Security Trustees Report said there’ll be enough money to pay full retirement benefits for another 19 years — until 2033. But there’s a more imminent Social Security crisis: the Social Security Administration’s horrendous service.

A combination of budget cuts, the sequester and questionable decisions by the Social Security Administration have led to massive field-office closings, reduced hours at offices that are still open and painfully long hold times for callers.

(I discussed this topic a few weeks ago, and staff cuts have affected recipients right here in West Palm Beach.)  

It’s happening precisely as the 78 million boomers are hitting retirement age, making the need for customer service greater than ever. Nearly three-quarters of Social Security field offices see between 50 and 199 visitors a day; that number will only increase as more boomers hit their 60s.

(Let’s not forget that we are only seeing the first wave of Baby Boomers begin to reach retirement age, there are tens of millions yet to retire.  And yet staff cutbacks are happening now.  Good luck with that.)

Consider:

  • Social Security has closed 64 field offices (and 533 temporary mobile offices) since 2010. That means the agency shuttered one in 20 field offices — the largest five-year decline its 79-year history. There are now 1,245 field offices, down from 1,340 in 2000.
  • It has 11,000 fewer workers than three years ago (a 14% drop); there are now 25,240 full-time employees. About a quarter of field offices lost at least 20% of their workers, according to National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA).
  • Since 2011, Social Security has reduced the time its field offices are open by the equivalent of one day a week. All its field offices close at noon on Wednesdays.
  • People are waiting 30% longer in field offices than in 2012. The average wait time today: 31 ½ minutes, according to NCSSMA. That’s an all-time high. At many offices, the wait time exceeds an hour.
  • Call Social Security’s 800-number and you’ll get a busy signal 14% of the time. That’s up markedly from 3% in Fiscal Year 2011.
  • If you do manage to get through, the average wait is more than 17 minutes.That’s nearly twice as long as in 2012. A few years ago, the average wait time was 5 minutes.

A draft of the Vision 2025 report it commissioned to fulfill its mission in 2025 says: Online self-service delivery would be “our primary service channel” and that Social Security would “provide direct service options (e.g., in-person, phone, online chat, video conference) in very limited circumstances.”

Chances are, over time, as more web-comfortable boomers and younger people hit their 60s, they’ll gravitate to the Social Security site. But as of now, only 4.5% of adults have created a my Social Security account and just 9 percent of those 62 or older have. One reason: A sizable 41% of adults 65 or older don’t use the Internet at all and 53% of them don’t have access to broadband at home, according to the Pew Research Center.

“There’s a real digital divide for vulnerable seniors,” says Ramsey Alwin, Vice President, Economic Security at the National Council on Aging. “There will be some challenges as we move to more online platforms and limited face-to-face opportunities.”

Adds Blank: “Social Security is telling people to go online, but it takes a fair amount of expertise to use its site. A lot of seniors are not web savvy; even the younger ones have trouble applying for benefits online.”

While I highly doubt that “41% of adults 65 or older don’t use the Internet at all”, it’s safe to say that they don’t use it all the time.  Most high school students could tell you that their grandparents would rather deal with a live person (either by phone or office visit) than attempt to navigate a website.  Yet the wizards at the upper-echelons of Social Security likely put much thought and effort into “Vision 2025”, only to produce dazzling ideas that would be shot down by a ninth-grader.  Until then, if you’re a retiree attempting to contact Social Security, you’ll probably be saying something like this.

Social Security shouldn’t cut hours for its office workers, they should cut the hours of the boneheads who championed this soon-to-be landfill fire and throw them into the unemployment line. It’s time for all of us tell our elected representatives that no one should be forced to pay into this mess.  It’s time for us to take back our six percent.

Richard Renza, Jr.

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