Fedweek

New York - April 2020: A Social Security Administration office in Astoria Queens closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SSA has asked Congress to support the funding boost that the Biden administration recommended for it in its recent budget outline, saying that funding restrictions have hampered its ability to hire needed employees and to make needed upgrades to the IT they use.

SSA commissioner Andrew Saul said in a letter that the agency needs “both additional frontline staff to help people now, and information technology investments to improve our future.” The requested $14.2 billion, would be $1.3 billion above the current year appropriation—which was $900 million below the original request, he said.

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Saul, a holdover from the Trump administration, said the agency’s budget has been essentially flat for four years “despite significant increases in costs that we do not control – such as the government-wide pay increases.”

He noted that he already has frozen hiring in non-frontline positions and said he now has “no other option but to delay our planned hiring to operate within our appropriated resources. Further, we will not be able to compensate for fewer employees with additional overtime. We are operating with the lowest level of overtime in the last decade,” he wrote.

He added that the agency has continued “to pay employee awards so they know that we appreciate their hard work and dedication, especially during this difficult time.”

Like many agencies with substantial face-to-face contact with the public, the SSA has moved many operations to a virtual footing due to the pandemic while maintaining some in-person service. However, the “abrupt changes to the way we do our work has caused bottlenecks in certain workloads and service deterioration beyond our control,” he wrote, including a 20 percent increase in the average time to complete an action in a field office.

In particular, he cited disability eligibility reviews, a complex process that often requires multiple contacts with a beneficiary while at the same time only 70 percent of medical providers who conduct exams that may be needed for a determination are seeing patients in person. Average processing times for initial disability claims increased about 45 days in the last year, he wrote.

He projected that the number of pending actions in SSA processing centers will grow from about 3.7 million at the end of fiscal 2020 to more than 4.2 million actions by the end of this year, while delaying plans to eliminate the backlog in disability determinations which has grown by 20 percent.

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