In an interview with Government Executive, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said the tough economy has increased the disability claims caseload by about 10 percent -- or 250,000 cases -- more than the agency had projected and budgeted for. He said SSA also has its hands tied when it comes to hiring new staff to address the increase in claims, largely because it is operating on a continuing resolution through March, which provides funding at fiscal 2008 levels.
"Help is already too late," he said. "The tidal wave is hitting us, and we don't have the money to staff up appropriately." ...
Astrue expressed some hope at the prospect of additional funding in the $819 billion stimulus package that Congress is debating. The House version of the bill, which that chamber passed on Wednesday, would provide $500 million to SSA for two years in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 to help address the disability case backlog. The legislation also would provide $400 million to create a new computer facility to keep up with new responsibilities and heavier workloads, he said.
But Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, said on Wednesday that the union has some concerns with the construction of a new computer facility, largely because it thinks the building's high price tag could be put to better use, such as reducing the hearings backlog, hiring additional staff and improving telephone customer service operations.
"The whole point of the stimulus package is to create jobs and spending," Skwierczynski said. "We could hire more SSA employees to do the additional workloads we're getting because of the economic downturn. We'll never get rid of these backlogs unless we have more staff."
Astrue said the agency plans to hire up to 155 additional administrative law judges [ALJs] this fiscal year to help address the backlog and influx of cases. In March, the Office of Personnel Management -- the agency charged with reviewing applications and screening potential ALJs -- will reopen the examination process and submit qualified candidates to SSA for review, he said. But because the new judges need to be hired, relocated and trained, Astrue said, they likely won't start contributing to reducing the backlog until next year. The agency currently employs about 1,200 ALJs.
The commissioner said the $500 million proposed in the stimulus package also would be used to hire additional ALJ support staff. The support staff-to-judge ratio now stands at 4.4-to-1, but the agency hopes to use the stimulus funding to increase the ratio to about 4.6-to-1, he said.
SSA also will look to the stimulus money to improve telephone services and wait times at field offices across the country, since demand for these services is picking up because of the tough economy, Astrue said. "The thing that's saving us is we have a big uptick in people using online services," he said. "Retirement applications are being filed online at a much higher level than they've been historically. That's a saving grace for us."
Astrue is trying to place the blame for the upsurge in claims on the economy even though the upsurge in claims is almost solely due to the aging of the baby boomer generation and was fully anticipated. He is also trying to blame Democrats for not passing the budget proposed by President Bush, even though, in essence, he concedes that the Bush budget was grossly inadequate. He is also claiming that persuading people to use the internet more in their dealings with Social Security will somehow save the day, even though internet retirement claims are unlikely to be more than a minor bit of help. What the public and most of Congress does not understand is that the Social Security Administration is mostly a disability adjudication agency. Nothing done on retirement claims is going to make that much difference because retirement claims do not take that much staff time to begin with. What really eats up staff time is disability claims. Online filing of disability claims is not ready for prime time now. It is not clear whether online filing of disability claims will ever save Social Security much staff time because most people filing disability claims are just too impaired to file anything this complicated online without making lots and lots of mistakes.
Bp the way, hiring 155 more ALJs sounds nice, but it is not much more than what is needed to replace the natural attrition of ALJs. If Social Security wants to beef up its ALJ corps so it can work off its backlogs, it is going to have to hire far more than 155 ALJs. Astrue needs to start talking about going up to 1,500 or even 2,000 ALJs if he wants to convince me he is serious about staffing up to work off the backlog.
And note this quote from Michael Astrue from April 23, 2008
, "We have also received some criticism that we are not providing adequate support staff for our administrative law judge corps. In my opinion, that is a fiction designed to sidetrack some of our productivity initiatives." Astrue is now planning to increase the support staff for ALJs! That remark was not off the cuff. It was in his written statement to a Congressional committee. It was a calculated insult. It looks pretty foolish now.