- The Covid-19 pandemic prompted the Social Security Administration to prioritize phone over in-person services.
- But outdated technology and other glitches led to disruptions, a new report found.
A new report from the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General found the agency experienced more than 40 telephone system disruptions between May 2021 and December 2022.
The disruptions came as the agency limited its in-person services following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. During that time, the telephone was the "primary option" for the public to interact with the agency's employees, the report noted.
Most of the disruptions happened between October and December 2022 and involved the agency's 800 number, resulting in longer wait times or busy messages, according to the report from the office of Inspector General Gail Ennis. The office oversees the Social Security Administration's programs and operations on the public's behalf.
The unanswered rate reached its highest among the service disruption dates identified in the report — 80.4% — on Feb. 22 and 23. During those two days, excessive calls per second happened while the phone system was at peak capacity, while the average speed with which calls were answered was 46.3 minutes.
The servers were rebooted, and preventive measures were put in place with the goal of preventing the issue from happening again, according to the report.
Other dates identified in the report showed the unanswered rate ranged from 32.3% at the lowest, while the average speed at which calls were answered was at least 13.5 minutes.
The official average phone wait times are around 35 minutes, according to Kathleen Romig, director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"Most people I've talked to have experienced longer wait times than that," Romig said.
For periods of up to two days, the 800-number services, including those that are automated, were unavailable, the report found.
Reasons for the disruptions included defective hardware, software glitches and server issues.
"The telephone is still a primary method of communication for handling business for many Americans, particularly the vulnerable, elderly or disabled," said Ennis. "It is critical that SSA is reachable, especially by those who depend on them the most."
To better serve the public following the onset of the pandemic, the Social Security Administration implemented temporary workarounds to its telephone systems, the agency's chief of staff, Scott Frey, said in a written response to the Office of the Inspector General's report.
"Since then, we worked steadily to improve the stability of this temporary solution, reducing service disruptions since Dec. 30, 2022," Frey wrote.
For years, the Social Security Administration has had three telephone systems for its 800 number, field offices and headquarters, according to the report. The agency plans to replace those with a single, uniform platform that is intended to be more "efficient, stable and functional," according to the report. The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed that upgrade.
The agency plans to implement a new telephone platform for the 800 number by the end of the 2023 fiscal year, Frey wrote.
The Social Security Administration did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
In addition to technological improvements, the Social Security Administration also needs to have more people answering the phone, according to Romig.
"In order to have more people answering the phones, you need more money," she added.
But securing extra resources for the federal agency may not be easy, Romig said.
The recent debt limit deal agreed to an average flat funding of 2023 levels for next year, she added. Romig noted, however, that House Republicans are pushing for average appropriations of 2022 levels.
Either of those options would be harmful to the agency's ability to provide services, she said.
The agency has many fixed costs that increase with inflation. At the same time, about 1 million people become beneficiaries on average each year due to the aging population, Romig said.
Capping fiscal year 2024 spending at a 2022 enacted level would cause a cut of about 6% from the agency's 2023 enacted funding, Social Security Administration acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi wrote in a March letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.
A 6% cut below current funding would "significantly affect our ability to serve the public and undermine our core mission — producing longer wait times for benefits and to reach SSA representatives, as well as reduced access to in-person service," Kijakazi wrote.