With widespread budget cuts on the horizon, Social Security beneficiaries will soon get a preview of how customer service can be affected by a more austere federal government.
Though the agency made no public announcement, the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration told employees this month it will cut hours of operation at its 1,233 field offices for the second time in as many years.
Nearly 180,000 people visit the offices every day to apply for Social Security cards as well as retirement and disability benefits.
The union representing Social Security employees and advocates for the elderly and disabled criticized the move, which will cut more than five hours from office schedules every week. The groups worry that hours will be reduced further when Congress returns to Washington after the Nov. 6 election to deal with the nation's fiscal crisis.
"Shorter hours at Social Security offices shortchange beneficiaries and applicants, many of whom are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," said Marty Ford, director of public policy for The Arc, a Washington advocacy group. "This is the unfortunate real-world impact of several years of underfunding and cuts to the administrative budget of the Social Security Administration."
The administrative costs to run Social Security are paid from the same trust fund that provides benefits to 56 million Americans, including 873,000 in Maryland.
The 75-year-old program is expected to spend $11.4 billion on administrative costs this fiscal year, about $22 million less than in 2011.
A spokesman for the agency said he did not know how much money the reduction in hours would save, but the move was intended to target overtime costs.
Employees can be forced into overtime when benefit applicants arrive just before closing; the screening process can take more than an hour.
"We are operating on significantly less funding than either the agency or President Obama requested," spokesman Mark Hinkle said in a statement. "We are doing the best we can under a tough budget situation."
Beginning Nov. 19, the agency's field offices will close a half-hour earlier each day. In most cases, that means closing at 3 p.m. rather than 3:30 p.m. Starting next year, the offices will close at noon on Wednesdays. Employees will continue to work the half-hour, finishing interviews and processing paperwork.
It is one of several cost-cutting moves Social Security has made in recent months. The agency reduced its office hours by 30 minutes last year. This month it stopped mailing annual statements to enrollees, including to people who ask for them. It has also cut back or closed contact offices altogether.
Increasingly, the agency is encouraging beneficiaries to file applications online or over the phone.
Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the emphasis on Internet applications puts people at risk of making bad choices. Applying for benefits is complicated, he said, and a big part of what field office employees do is to guide people through the process.
"Often, people just give up and they really answer questions incompletely or not at all," Skwierczynski said. "When you switch things to the Internet, the result is bad service — people making choices that are disadvantageous. What they're proposing, doesn't cut it."
Failing to fill out applications correctly can lead to denials.
That, Skwierczynski said, can add to an already heavy backlog of disability appeals.
A study last year found that the average appeal took just over a year to process despite efforts by the agency to reduce the delay.
Customer service cuts have been common among public agencies during the sluggish economic recovery. Though the U.S. Postal Service does not receive taxpayer money, it has faced similar choices about whether to close offices and distribution centers. Its officials have asked Congress to allow it to discontinue Saturday delivery as a way to stem loses.
The bulk of Social Security funding — about 70 percent — comes from dedicated payroll taxes. A wide-ranging debate has evolved over whether temporary payroll tax cuts created by the Obama administration could harm the program. But most budget analysts say the greatest threat to the program's long-term health is the aging of the nation's population. By 2033, there will be nearly twice as many seniors as today, according to Social Security estimates. And the life expectancy of a 65-year-old has increased from 14 years in 1940 to 20 years today.
With about 10,000 employees, Social Security is the largest employer in Baltimore County.
Service cuts have become a top concern for advocates, including groups such as AARP. The state director of the seniors lobby said economic and demographic trends are causing demand for services to grow.
"The Social Security Administration provides critical services and guidance to millions of Americans seeking to claim the benefits they've earned," Hank Greenberg said in a statement. "While we appreciate the need for Washington to make difficult budgetary decisions, AARP will continue to advocate for adequate funding to allow SSA to better serve all Americans."
Social Security hours
Beginning Nov. 19, the agency's 1,233 field offices will close a half-hour earlier each day — usually at 3 p.m. instead of 3:30 p.m.
Starting in January, the offices will close at noon Wednesdays.