- As Social Security reopens its offices this year, some beneficiaries and applicants have faced long waits outside in the summer heat.
- In response to lawmakers' requests, the agency is taking steps to implement safety upgrades.
- One expert says a lack of funding is to blame.
Those who sought help from their local Social Security Administration office recently may have been met with a new challenge — long outside lines in the summer heat.
That prompted congressional lawmakers to write to the federal agency last month strongly urging it to take action to address the safety needs of individuals seeking services at its field offices.
Now, in a new response from the Social Security Administration, acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi writes, "I share your concerns."
"We have taken steps to improve service to people waiting outside our offices, which is often caused by physical distancing," Kijakazi said.
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The long lines are the latest complication to have come up as the Social Security Administration adjusted its services in the wake of the pandemic.
The agency was forced to mostly shutter its field offices to in-person visits after the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020. Beneficiaries and applicants subsequently complained about long wait times as they tried to get help through the agency's toll-free 800 number. The Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General also identified deficiencies in handling mail that led to a backlog of unprocessed paperwork, which the agency has also worked to address.
As Social Security began to reopen its field offices in April, many hoped those service pressures would ease. Instead, Covid-19 protocols have added new complications.
The agency's service difficulties date back to before the pandemic, said Maria Freese, senior legislative representative at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
"The Social Security Administration has been underfunded, shortchanged for over a decade as the demands on their services have increased," Freese said.
Social Security is now taking steps aimed at reducing its in-person wait times, particularly in its busiest offices.
For offices where outside lines are necessary, Social Security is providing access to bathrooms, water fountains and, in some cases, fans and outdoor canopies. The agency is also rearranging its waiting areas to allow more people to access its air-conditioned offices. It is also expanding the use of mobile check-ins for appointments that will allow people to wait in their cars or other places nearby.
In addition, they are working to expedite appointments.
Those measures include referring customers for either quick express interviews or for same-day or future appointments; checking to make sure visitors have the necessary information and documents; providing drop boxes for documents; giving workload assignments to offices with less walk-in traffic; assigning volunteers to busier offices; rehiring retired employees; suspending telework for some in-office employees; and increasing overtime for busy offices.
However, these all amount to "stopgap" changes, according to Freese. "We think that the agency needs more money," she said.
"The consequences of years of underfunding are finally manifesting themselves in an agency that appears to all outsiders as though it's dysfunctional," she said.
With its response to congressional lawmakers, Social Security also released data on which locations more frequently experienced long wait times from April to August.
"These weekly data reveal a very low percentage of our more than 1,200 field offices experienced lines of 40 or more visitors," Kijakazi said.
The number of sites with more than 40 people waiting outside at 9 a.m. was 216, with a total of 4,461 occurrences over those months.
The locations with the top number of occurrences (94) included Orlando, Carrollwood, Perrine and South Miami in Florida; the Twin Cities in Minnesota; Southwest and northwest Houston and Pasadena in Texas; and Las Vegas. Sites with 93 occurrences included Hialeah and Little Havana, both in Florida.
The number of sites that experienced more than 40 people waiting outside at 3 p.m. was far fewer (37) with 341 total occurrences.
The locations with the most occurrences included Orlando, with 40; Little Havana, 37; Perrine, 33; Southwest Houston, 31; Northwest and Southeast Houston, each with 27 in Texas; South Miami, 26; the Twin Cities, 23; and North Miami, 21, and South Broward in Florida, 13.
Social Security's offices tend to be busiest first thing in the morning, early in the week and early in the month, Kijakazi said earlier this year as offices began to reopen.
In the recent letter to Congress, Kijakazi also reiterated that people may have quicker success getting their needs met either online or by phone.
Online services are available online at Socialsecurity.gov. By creating a My Social Security account, people can request a replacement Social Security card or SSA-1099 tax form, start or change direct deposits or print or download a benefit verification letter.
Phone services also tend to be less busy at certain times. Wait times tend to be shorter before 10 a.m., after 4 p.m., later in the week or later in the month, Social Security said earlier this year.