Mar 31, 2011

Social Security Highlights Problems Caused By State Furloughs

From Federal Computer Week:

The Social Security Administration has started an interactive online map to highlight the 19 states that have lost $65 million in federal funds collectively by furloughing workers whose salaries are paid by the SSA.

Under a joint federal-state funding relationship, SSA pays the full salaries of state employees who do initial processing of disability claims under the federal Disability Determination Services program.

As a budget-reduction measure, governors in recent months have adopted furloughs for their state workforces. The mandatory time off without pay included the disability-processing workers in 19 states, despite cautions from SSA not to include them.

Wimping Out

From The Hill:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will largely give Social Security a pass in his highly anticipated budget while proposing a significant overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid, according to sources briefed on the plan.

The 2012 budget resolution, which committee Republicans are still finalizing, is scheduled to be unveiled on Tuesday. It will not back specific benefit cuts to Social Security or suggest raising the retirement age, sources said. ...

On Medicare, the budget will propose a modified version of what has become known as the Ryan-Rivlin voucher proposal, named after Ryan and former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin.

Under the Ryan-Rivlin plan, citizens who turn 65 in 2021 or later would not enroll in the current Medicare program but instead would receive a voucher to buy private health insurance.

Come on, Republicans. You keep promising the Tea Party that you'll "reform" Social Security, the government program for which you have the deepest, most longstanding hatred. Here's your chance to actually propose something specific and you wimp out. That's not the red meat that will get your base excited.

Mar 30, 2011


From George Stephanopoulos of ABC News:
Sources tell me that budget negotiators on Capitol Hill have tentatively agreed on a deal that would involve at least $33 billion in spending cuts from this year’s budget. That’s $23 billion dollars more than Democrats have previously agreed to in short-term continuing resolutions, and $28 billion less than Republicans previously passed in the House. ...

The deal could still fall apart over the composition of the cuts, or policy “riders” previously passed by the House.

We're Gonna Kick Their Ass

The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, went to the Senate floor today to say that House Speaker John Boehner has come back to negotiations with him over the budget impasse. Reid implied that the problem has not been Boehner but far right Republicans.

Meanwhile, Boehner, in talking about budget negotiations, vowed that “We’re gonna kick their ass.”

AFGE Plans Rallies On Budget

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union the represents most Social Security employees is planning a series of rallies for April 6 to protest plans to cut Social Security's administrative budget. Click on the attached flyer to see it full size.

Where Do We Stand?

There is lots of news on the budget front but where it leaves us is most unclear.

From the Washington Post:
Having difficulty finding consensus within their own ranks, House Republican leaders have begun courting moderate Democrats on several key fiscal issues, including a deal to avoid a government shutdown at the end of next week.

The basic outline would involve more than $30 billion in cuts for the 2011 spending package, well short of the $61 billion initially demanded by freshman Republicans and other conservatives, according to senior aides in both parties. Such a deal probably would be acceptable to Senate leaders and President Obama as long as the House didn’t impose funding restrictions on certain social and regulatory programs supported by Democrats, Senate and administration aides said.

The fact that Republican leaders have initiated talks with some Democrats shows some division within House Republicans just two months after taking over the House.
From The Hill:

Conservatives are turning to a new message in the escalating budget fight: A government shutdown is not actually a shutdown.

It’s a “slowdown,” according to the new refrain from Tea Party leader Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Or as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) put it on Monday, the stalemate over spending could cause the government “to partially shut down.”

From the New York Times:
The most visible element of the budget fight in Congress is the one over the scale of spending cuts this year. But increasingly, other deeply contentious policy issues that House Republicans insist must be addressed in any budget deal are as much of a stumbling block as the final dollar figure.

They include efforts to take away money to carry out the new health care law, to limit regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and to cut federal financing for organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide abortions. ...

While two sides can ultimately agree on dollars, coming together on ideologically polarizing policy matters is far more difficult: Some things you are either for or against.
From the National Journal:
In a purely symbolic move in the ongoing budget and spending cut negotiations, House Republicans plan to pass on Friday a measure called the “Prevention of a Government Shutdown Act. Passage will do nothing to avoid a government shutdown ...
According to TPM, the Prevention of a Government Shutdown Act "would deem controversial Republican spending cut legislation the law of the land if Congress blows past an April 6 deadline."

From the Associated Press:
Democrats indicated Tuesday they may be willing to accept Republican-backed curbs on the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators as part of an overall deal on spending cuts, a rare hint of compromise in private negotiations marked by public rancor.

Santorum Says That Social Security's Problems Are Caused By Abortion

From the Los Angeles Times:
Social Security's future insolvency problem is caused in part by abortion, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum said Tuesday.

The presidential aspirant and devout social conservative told a New Hampshire radio station on Tuesday that the cash shortfalls facing the 76-year-old Social Security system could be lessened if not for the country's "abortion culture." He was responding to a caller who made similar comments.

"Well, a third of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion," he said. "We are depopulating this country, and we're seeing the birth rate is below replacement rate for the first time in history."

Mar 29, 2011

Shutdown Looking Inevitable

TPM says that a government shutdown is looking inevitable and that Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other.

Fighting For An Adequate Budget

From the Washington Post:
Claims for Social Security and disability benefits have grown in recent years, the result of baby boomer retirements and high unemployment. The Social Security Administration received 10 million new claims in 2009, up from about 8.2 million in 2004.

With 65 percent of new disability claims initially denied, appeals began piling up, and administrative law judges who hear these cases were overwhelmed.

By August 2008, an appeal took an average of 532 days to resolve. The agency hired judges and support staff to speed up the process, and by last year the average appeal took 390 days. There was still a backlog of 705,370 pending hearings.

But progress has been undermined by the budget impasse affecting most federal agencies, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Without a budget for the current fiscal year, the Social Security staff has had to cut short its efforts to improve efficiency. ...

The report also says that President Obama’s budget requests for the Social Security Administration in recent years have not covered the increases in claims and backlog in appeals. ...

In response, the Social Security agency has suspended efforts to open eight planned hearing offices to process claims in Alabama, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, Texas, Montana, California and New York, spokesman Mark Lassiter said. Overtime has been largely eliminated, and a hiring freeze has blocked new staff to process appeals.

The extended stopgap measures have “made it much more difficult” for the agency to reduce the backlog in disability claims, he said.

“We have many high-traffic offices where all day long, our employees interview people filing for benefits,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the union representing local Social Security field offices. “Then they have to process a case. That takes time.”

This sort of article seldom appears spontaneously. Some member of Congress asked for that Congressional Research Service report. Probably, someone asked that member of Congress to ask for that report. Someone pointed out the report to the Post. Someone fed the Post information about backlogs at Social Security. Someone told them that even the Obama budget for Social Security is inadequate. We cannot know for sure but there is a good chance that Social Security's press office was involved in planting this story since they are quoted. I am glad to see that a good fight is being put up to get Social Security an adequate operating budget. This is exactly the opposite of what happened when Jo Anne Barnhart was Commissioner of Social Security.

Can't Get A Social Security Statement Online Anymore

Take a look at this Social Security webpage. Things are even worse than I thought.



From a presolicitation notice posted by Social Security:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a need to acquire consulting services in the field of Industrial Organizational (I/O) psychology or an equivalent field in support of the design of an Occupational Information System (OIS).
Can anyone explain this one?

April 8

From Ezra Klein, writing in the Washington Post:
April 8th. That’s the deadline for Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal on funding for the remainder of 2011. No deal? Then the government shuts down. And if I were a betting man, that’s where my money would be right now: the negotiations have become too acrimonious, the issues at their heart too numerous and personal to the parties, to make a deal likely even in normal circumstances. But in circumstances in which newly elected Republicans are trying to prove to their base that they won’t catch Beltway fever and compromise while Democrats are trying to prove they won’t get pushed around by a party that controls a minority of the federal government? A deal seems near impossible.

Mar 28, 2011

Government Shutdown Looms

From the Wall Street Journal:

The White House and Democratic lawmakers, with less than two weeks left to avoid a government shutdown, are assembling a proposal for roughly $20 billion in additional spending cuts that could soon be offered to Republicans, according to people close to the budget talks.

That would come on top of $10 billion in cuts that Congress has already enacted and would represent a deeper reduction than the Obama administration and Senate Democrats had offered previously in negotiations. But it isn't clear that would be enough to satisfy Republicans, who initially sought $61 billion in spending cuts and face pressure from tea-party activists not to compromise....

The Treasury Department this week is likely to issue an updated report on when it expects the ceiling on the federal debt will have to be increased; its most recent estimate was that the borrowing limit would be reached between April 15 and the end of May. ...

Anticipating tough tea-party opposition to raising the debt limit, Senate Republicans are planning soon to mount a new push for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget, which may be unveiled soon after Congress reconvenes this week.

What Social Security Crisis?

From Paul Krugman, writing about the argument that the Social Security trust funds are a myth:
The bigger problem for those who want to see a crisis in Social Security’s future is this: if Social Security is just part of the federal budget, with no budget or trust fund of its own, then, well, it’s just part of the federal budget: there can’t be a Social Security crisis. All you can have is a general budget crisis. Rising Social Security benefit payments might be one reason for that crisis, but it’s hard to make the case that it will be central.

Mar 27, 2011

Government Shutdown Looking More Likely

From the Washington Post:
A breakdown this week in closed-door negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House on funding the federal government spilled into the open late Friday, with aides from both parties now saying it’s possible Congress may not agree on a long-term funding resolution or another temporary measure by an April 8 deadline. ...

Democratic aides said talks had been underway for nearly two weeks between Boehner’s staff and the White House budget office, with steady progress leading to an agreement that the two sides would meet halfway between the $61 billion in cuts approved by the House and Democrats’ preference for maintaining current spending levels.

Since $10 billion in cuts had already been approved in two temporary funding resolutions, that position would require Democrats to come up with only an additional $20 billion to $25 billion — some of which Democrats hoped to take from mandatory programs such as health care and agriculture subsidies.

But on Tuesday, according to Democrats, House Republicans changed the terms, insisting that negotiations start with the House-passed bill and that Democrats identify the cuts they couldn’t accept.

Such a move would force Democrats to go on record defending programs that Republicans had identified as wasteful. In the meeting Tuesday, White House budget director Jacob J. Lew balked at the terms and walked out of the meeting, Democratic aides said.

Republican aides blamed Lew for the impasse, saying it was the White House that had demanded unreasonable terms.

Medicare Premium Increase To Gobble Up COLA?

From the Associated Press:
Millions of retired and disabled people in the United States had better brace for another year with no increase in Social Security payments.

The government is projecting a slight cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits next year, the first increase since 2009. But for most beneficiaries, rising Medicare premiums threaten to wipe out any increase in payments, leaving them without a raise for a third straight year.

Mar 26, 2011

Can We All Agree That The AARP Isn't A Grassroots Organization?

From The Hill:

Newly empowered House Republicans are getting ready to renew their attacks against AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] over its support for the healthcare reform law, The Hill has learned.

The Ways and Means health and oversight subcommittees are hauling in the seniors lobby's executives before the panel for an April 1 hearing on how the group stands to benefit from the law, among other topics. ...

The hearing will cover not only Medigap but "AARP’s organizational structure, management, and financial growth over the last decade." ...

According to its 2008 tax filing, AARP made $249 million from membership dues but $653 million in payments for lending its name to policies sold to its members by private insurers. Those royalties made up more than 57 percent of its total $1.14 billion in revenues that year. ...

This isn't the first time the AARP's dual role as a consumer advocate and an insurance sponsor has come under scrutiny.

Democrats were furious when the association supported Republicans' Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 ...
And the AARP's support for "temporarily" reducing the FICA tax is inconsistent with its supposed staunch support for Social Security.

Mar 25, 2011


The chances for avoiding a government shutdown when the current continuing resolution expires on April 8 are not looking so good at the moment.

Democrats Sharply Divided On Social Security?

From the Washington Post:
With momentum building to rein in record budget deficits, Democrats are sharply divided over whether to tackle popular but increasingly expensive safety-net programs for the elderly, particularly Social Security.

A growing number of Democratic lawmakers say they are willing to consider controversial measures such as raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for wealthier seniors as part of a compromise with Republicans to cut spending on the programs and stabilize them for future generations.

But senior lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) are lining up against them, arguing that tampering with Social Security would harm the elderly — as well as the political fortunes of Democrats hoping to maintain control of the White House and the Senate in 2012....

Meanwhile, Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, plans to release a memo Friday arguing that the deficit has emerged as an uncommonly powerful political issue and that 2012 voters will reward the party that takes bold action to restrain government spending — including overhauling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“In our view, Republicans are winning this fight,” the memo says, according to an advance copy provided to The Washington Post. “ ...

Josh Marshall at TPM commenting upon the Post article:
Beware articles that conflate Social Security with Medicare. Beware articles that hang on statements from pressure groups with virtually no constituency within the Democratic party.

OIG Report On State Agency Furloughs

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on the Social Security Administration's response to furloughs of state employees who make initial and reconsideration determinations on disability claims for the agency. A number of states in financial difficulty have furloughed these employees even though their salaries and all other expenses are paid by the federal government. The reason always given for this is that the states want "to be fair to other state employees." I have extracted a chart from the report showing the numbers of cases involved per state and what Social Security has done in response. Click on the chart to see it full size.

Here is an interesting paragraph from the report (footnotes omitted):
SSA [Social Security Administration] explored other options to address the effect of State furloughs, such as contracting with private companies and federalizing the State DDSs [Disability Determination Services]. However, these options would likely involve legislative changes, as the Social Security Act, in effect, requires that most disability determinations be processed by State DDSs. Additionally, SSA estimated that federalizing the State DDSs would be more costly than the current framework—costing approximately $4 billion over the first 4 years.

Mar 24, 2011

This Doesn't Happen Every Day, Thank Goodness

From KCTV in Kansas City:
A man was sentenced Wednesday for making threats against a psychologist in an effort to receive Social Security disability benefits, said authorities.

Tyrone L. Holman, 32, of Kansas City, Mo., was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison without parole.

On Oct. 8., Holman pleaded guilt to obstructing federal proceedings before a federal agency.

In December 2008, Holman left threatening voice messages on the answering machine of a psychologist who was supposed to be evaluating his eligibility for title II disability benefits and supplemental security income.

Mar 23, 2011

Disability Benefits In Puerto Rico Draw Attention Of WSJ

From the Wall Street Journal:
CAGUAS, Puerto Rico—This mountainside town is home to a picturesque cathedral, a tobacco museum and a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Another defining feature: Caguas's 00725 zip code has more people who receive a disability check than any other in the U.S.

Puerto Rico has emerged in recent years as one of the easiest places in the U.S. to get payments from the Social Security Disability Insurance program ... In 2010, 63% of applicants there won approval, four percentage points higher than New Jersey and Wyoming, the most-generous U.S. states. In fact, nine of the top 10 U.S. zip codes for disabled workers receiving benefits can be found on Puerto Rico.

The SSDI is set to soon become the first big federal benefit program to run out of cash—and one of the main reasons is U.S. states and territories have a large say in who qualifies for the federally funded program. Without changes, the Social Security retirement fund can survive intact through about 2040 and Medicare through 2029. The disability fund, however, will run dry in four to seven years without federal intervention, government auditors say.

In addition to the uneven selection process, SSDI has been pushed to the brink of insolvency by the sour economy. A huge wave of applicants joined the program over the past decade, boosting it from 6.6 million beneficiaries in 2000 to 10.2 million in 2010. New recipients have come from across the country, with an 85% increase in Texas over 10 years and a 69% increase in New Hampshire. ...

In 2006, just 36% of applicants in Puerto Rico were approved for benefits. By 2010, the rate had rocketed. In December, 69% of applicants were approved, the highest one-month approval rate by any state or U.S. territory since 2002.....

Administrative law judges in Puerto Rico, who make decisions in cases that are initially rejected or need further review, approved full or partial benefits in 80% of the cases they reviewed in fiscal 2010, according to data reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. One judge in San Juan, Manuel del Valle, approved 98% of the cases brought to him during that span, according to data reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Mar 22, 2011

The SSAB Has A Vision For The Future

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued "The Social Security Administration: A Vision of the Future: First Steps on the Road to 2020." The future looks very technological to the SSAB.

Disability claims do not completely fit into the SSAB's vision and are, therefore, mostly ignored even though they make up around half of the agency's workload.

If there is even one original idea in this report, I missed it.

Mar 21, 2011

Sink The Bismarck!

The new Republican meme on Social Security: It is bad because it was invented by Bismarck.

Sound odd? Unbelievable? See it here and here and here.

Update: This meme goes back much further than I thought. See here and here and here and here. I had no idea that Bismarck was such a socialist hero.

Not Getting Involved

The text of an Emergency Message recently sent out to Social Security's field offices:
A. Introduction
    The purpose of this message is to provide FO i[Field Office] nstructions when claimants or representatives ask the FO to open CDs encrypted by ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review].

B. Background
    Recently ODAR began encrypting CDs they send to claimants and representatives in response to an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directive. Claimants or representatives are occasionally unable to open these CDs and request that the FO:
      - Open or unencrypt the CD
      - Burn an unencrypted CD
C. Procedure
    1. FO employees should not:
      - Burn a new CD of any kind
      - Take the CD from the claimant or Representative
      - Destroy the CD for the claimant or Representative
    2. FO employees should direct the claimant or representative to contact their servicing ODAR hearings office to resolve any problem with the inability to open the encrypted CD.

Direct all program–related and technical questions to your RO [Regional Office] support staff or PSC [Program Service Center] OA staff. RO support staff or PSC OA staff may refer questions or problems to their Central Office contacts.
It is more than occasionally that attorneys and representatives have trouble opening the CDs.

Surprising Support For Data Center Funding

From, of all places, the Lubbock, Texas Avalanche-Journal:
... I am not a huge supporter of Social Security. But just because I don't think it's Uncle Sam's job to take care of me and mine doesn't mean I'm oblivious to the reality of the situation. And that reality is that our Social Security system is residing in a data center that is decades old with a backup system that may or may not work, and will take five days to bring online even if it does. ...

In five days people could - probably will - die. I may not think much of Social Security, but the system is in place, and we have to make sure it doesn't fail. For too many people it's their only safety net. Write your congressman not to cut any of the funding for the Social Security data center upgrade.

Mar 20, 2011

That Was So Last Year

From Federal Computer Week:

The Social Security Administration reduced backlogs and increased the pace of its disability assessments in fiscal 2010, but missed its target for increasing online applications from retirees, according to an internal SSA report.

Overall, out of 35 performance measures, the SSA met the targets for 26 measures, failed three measures and is awaiting further results on six measures, states the SSA Performance and Accountability Report for Fiscal Year 2010. The agency conducted the review and issued the report internally late last year, but only recently made it public.

One of the most prominent goals that the SSA just missed in fiscal 2010 had to do with the target for moving a larger proportion of the approximately 2.4 million annual retiree applications for benefits to an online form, rather than paper forms.

Mar 19, 2011

Everybody Agrees That The District Court Decision Was Weird

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an opinion in Murkledove v. Astrue, holding that an attorney fee is "incurred" for purposes of the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) at the time a case is remanded by a federal court. The lower court had denied an EAJA fee on a remanded cases saying that the contingent fee had not been "incurred." Social Security had not opposed the EAJA award at the District Court level and also supported the appeal.

Get Your Stats Right Here

The Social Security Administration has released its mammoth Annual Statistical Supplement 2010.

Mar 18, 2011

ODAR Processing Time Report

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives.
Processing Time Report 3-1-11

Budget Situation

This broadcast e-mail went out today:

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: Budget Update

Yesterday Congress passed an extension of the continuing resolution for three more weeks, and the President is expected to sign it shortly. As part of that legislation, Congress cut another $200 million from our administrative budget. We are already operating with less money than we had last year.

For the time being, we will continue with the restrictions on overtime. We hope to restore at least some overtime once Congress passes a permanent budget.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Michael J. Astrue


Japan's Crisis And U.S. Social Security

There may be tens of thousands dead or severely injured in Japan and many more who have been forced to evacuate their homes. Undoubtedly, there are a good number of people who are or were eligible for U.S. Social Security benefits so affected. Also, undoubtedly, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and all U.S. consulates in Japan are overwhelmed with more pressing matters at the moment than Social Security benefits. The Office of Personnel Management has set up a hotline for dealing with such issues. I wonder what the Social Security Administration is planning.

Update: There were 41,874 people receiving U.S. Social Security benefits as of December 2009 who were living in Japan.

ALJ Removed From Job After Assault On Domestic Partner

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has affirmed the removal of Danvers E. Long from his position as an Administrative Law Judge with the Social Security Administration based on a charge of conduct unbecoming his position. Long had worked at the Fort Lauderdale hearing office. Here is an excerpt from the decision describing the charge against Long:
At approximately 11:00 p.m. on January 27, 2008, Long was involved in a physical altercation ... with his domestic partner, Lilia Vanessa Castro ... who is the mother of his youngest child ... The physical altercation began when Castro returned home, after leaving their child in Long’s care, to discover that Long was asleep in their bedroom and the child was not with him [sic]. ...

Castro explained that Long repeatedly struck and pushed her and that he accidentally struck their child. The police observed, and took digital photographs of, physical injuries on Castro’s face, forearm, and thigh as well as a red mark on the child’s face. Long was arrested and, on February 21, 2008, was charged with one count of domestic violence battery and one count of culpable negligence. The prosecutor later entered a nolle prosequi on the criminal charges against Long.

Bounty Hunters

From the Fresno Bee:
Local governments strapped for cash are turning to a new source of income: a bounty payment for reporting jail inmates to the Social Security Administration. ...

Although the bounty payments aren't large, they add up.

The Fresno County Sheriff's Department gets about $4,000 to $8,000 a month under the bounty program, and collected about $48,000 from July 2010 to January 2011 ...

"It's a very successful program," said Lowell Kepke, spokesman for Social Security's San Francisco regional headquarters. ...

Although 99% of jails and prisons in the United States have signed up, "Social Security would like all institutions to be participating" because the program saves the government money, Kepke said.

Mar 17, 2011

The Crisis Drumbeat Works But Maybe Not In The Way Intended

A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows that 81% of Americans believe that Social Security is headed for a crisis and 1% believe that it is already in crisis. 66% believe that major changes are needed. The most popular solution for this "crisis" is removing the cap on earnings covered by FICA. In fact, that is the only solution supported by more than 50% of those polled.

Colvin Testifies Before House Committee

Carolyn Colvin, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner, is testifying today before the House Appropriations Committee on overpayment issues at Social Security. Her written testimony repeatedly emphasizes that reducing overpayments depends greatly upon an adequate operating budget for Social Security.

Can't We Do Better?

This is a slightly edited version of an e-mail I recently from another attorney who represents Social Security claimants. He was asking for advice on what to do:

I was original attorney, another attorney in my office covered hearing for me. We filed new fee agreement and forms 1695 and 1696. My staff didn’t withdraw my name and waive fee. In any event, the Administrative Law Judge approved the fee agreement. Social Security issued 2 fee checks -- one for me and one for the other attorney in my office (split down the middle). This was back in January. I get a letter today from the Regional Chief Judge, stating that the processing center protested the fee agreement because one or more reps from the same office did not sign a single fee agreement. They cited Hallex I-1-2-12. Then goes on to say we have 60 days to submit fee petition.

Does this make sense to anyone? Yes, it is in accordance with obscure, pointless Social Security policies but does it make sense?

When I have raised issues concerning the absurdities of attorney fee regulation as applied to law firms on this blog, the responses I have gotten from Social Security employees have ranged from "Who cares?" to "It's our policy and you'd jolly well better follow every jot and tittle of it or else!" to "Good! You attorneys make more money than I do."

This is bureaucracy at its worst: obscure, pointless policies that have nothing to do with implementing any statute or protecting the public interest being implemented haphazardly by an agency that refuses to deal with the issue.

We need regulations that address the reality that there are such things as law firms and that often the representation of a single client may involve more than one attorney at a law firm.

New Regional Commissioner In Atlanta

From the Anderson, SC Independent Mail:
Michael W. Grochowski has been selected as the regional commissioner for the Atlanta Region of the Social Security Administration. Grochowski began his federal career in 1974 with the Veterans Administration after serving in the armed forces, including a tour in Vietnam. He has held executive positions with the Health Care Finance Administration and the Social Security Administration and was appointed to the Federal Senior Executive Service in 1988.
It appears that Grochowski has been regional commissioner in Social Security's Kansas City region. The Atlanta region is, by far, the largest of Social Security's regions. Regional commissioner in Atlanta is one of the Social Security Administration's most important career positions.

Commissioner Holds Hearing On Compassionate Allowances In Autoimmune Disorder Cases

The Commissioner of Social Security held a public hearing on compassionate allowances in autoimmune disorder cases on March 16.

Just last week I met with three new clients suffering from systemic lupus erythematosus, (SLE) an autoimmune disorder, or at least one that is frequently classified as an autoimmune disorder. These days I am taking on more multiple sclerosis (MS) cases than ever before. MS can also be characterized as an autoimmune disorder.

Is anything the Commissioner doing with compassionate allowances going to help my SLE or MS clients? Not likely. Can anyone give me an example of someone who would be helped by compassionate allowances who wouldn't have been quickly approved anyway?

As pet projects go, compassionate allowances is innocuous. It is certainly better than former Commissioner Barnhart's Disability Service Improvement (DSI) fiasco although DSI included "Quick Disability Determinations" (QDD) for those who were "obviously disabled." I have not seen any explanation of the difference between QDD and compassionate allowances. As a practical matter, I do not think there is a difference beyond the fact that Astrue is Commissioner and Barnhart is gone.

Mar 16, 2011

Enter The Social Security News March Madness Bracket Challenge

At the extreme risk of embarrassing myself once again, I have set up a Social Security News NCAA March Madness bracket group. Click here to enter.

The password for our group is:

There is no prize for winning except for the recognition you receive here. Social Security employees should not enter the competition while on the clock.

Chances Of Government Shutdown Increase?

From David Rogers, writing at Politico:

Tuesday’s breakdown in Republican discipline weakens Speaker John Boehner’s hand in White House budget talks and raises the chances of a government shutdown next month unless he and President Barack Obama greatly step up their game.

Fifty-four Republicans broke ranks with Boehner, leaving him suddenly dependent on Democrats to win House approval of a must-pass three-week spending bill to keep the government operating past Friday. Tea-party-backed freshmen contributed to the embarrassment, but an equal force was a set of more veteran conservatives — some with their own political agenda but also more willing to risk an immediate fight with the White House.

“I think we have to have a fight. I think this is the moment,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told POLITICO prior to the vote. “Things don’t change around here until they have to, and Republicans ought to draw a line in the sand.”

Brian Beutler, writing at TPM argues that the defection of many House Republicans increases the power of House Democrats.

House Democrats Press For Adequate Social Security Budget

From a press release:
Today 125 members of the House Democratic Caucus sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) urging him to restore reasonable funding levels to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the House Republican 2011 budget to avoid shutting down the agency for the equivalent of a month this year.

Least Discussed And Most Muddled

From The Economist:
Thomas Scully has a busy law office in Lake County, Indiana. He mainly practices disability law, with good reason. Lake County is home to steel mills. Workers have aching backs and hands warped by machinery. Mr Scully helps them win Social Security Disability Insurance (DI), which provides cash and, after two years, access to Medicare, government-subsidised health insurance meant mainly for the elderly. DI is not supposed to be a safety net for the jobless. “I tell clients”, Mr Scully explains, “disability insurance is not unemployment insurance.” But they should be forgiven for being confused.

Politicians like to deride expensive programmes. DI may be the least discussed and most muddled. The programme is severely strained. The number of awards has spiked in the downturn, rising 28% since 2007. This surge follows decades of growth. DI accounted for about 10% of Social Security spending in 1989 but 18% by 2009. This is not because beneficiaries are bending any rules; the real problem is that the rules are a mess.
The article goes on to make a classic argument about the Social Security program which I will paraphrase: "It's much easier to get disability benefits now than it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s; therefore the program has run amok." A more sensible take would be to first examine what was going on in the late 1970s and early 1980s to determine whether that was some golden age. It was not. Disability standards were preposterously tight in those days, by far tighter than anything before or since. The problem is not what is going on now; the problem was what was going on then, but that does not make for an interesting story.

Of course, the author is right in saying that discussions of Social Security disability benefits are frequently muddled.

Mar 15, 2011

New CR Passes House Of Representatives

The House of Representatives has passed a new Continuing Resolution (CR) that will keep Social Security and other federal agencies going for another three weeks, to April 8. This is likely to be passed by the Senate and signed by the President. This CR continues the pain for Social Security since it will only fund the agency at last year's rate, a real problem for an agency with a rapidly growing workload.

By the time this new CR runs out, the federal government is likely to be up against its debt ceiling which will add additional pressure to the negotiations.

Obama's Advisers Split On Social Security

From The Hill:
Social Security reform is splitting President Obama’s economic and political advisers. ...

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Sperling’s deputy, Jason Furman — leading figures in the president’s economic team — are pressing Obama to cut Social Security benefits if necessary, say sources familiar with their positions.

But Obama’s political team, led by David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, are urging the president to understand that backing benefit cuts could prove disastrous to his 2012 reelection hopes, sources say. ...

White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said, "The notion that the president’s team is divided on our approach to this issue is flatly untrue. ..."

No Overtime Due To Budget Stalemate

From the Federal Times:

The Social Security Administration has canceled overtime for most employees, effective immediately, according to a message from the agency's top finance official.

The only exception is for overtime "directly related" to life, safety and preservation of property, Deputy Commissioner Michael Gallagher said in a Friday e-mail. The decision was the result of discussions earlier that day between Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and the Office of Management and Budget, Gallagher said. ...

Based on the Obama administration's fiscal 2011 budget request, for example, the agency expected about 3,200 work years to come from overtime, versus some 68,800 from full-time equivalents.

Service Slipping

From today's New York Times:
Unsure from week to week how much money Congress will provide them as the two parties battle over the budget for the rest of this year, federal officials say many agencies have been operating in chaos, confusion and uncertainty. ...

Michael J. Astrue, the commissioner of Social Security, said the agency had cut back distribution of annual earnings and benefit statements and had suspended plans to open eight hearing offices that would tackle a huge backlog of appeals by people seeking disability benefits.

Like most of the government, the Social Security Administration has been financed for more than five months with short-term spending bills known as continuing resolutions. Congress is expected to pass another three-week spending bill this week that will continue to pare back financing from last year’s level.

“Because of the uncertainty of our budget,” Mr. Astrue said, “I have had to make choices that will begin to erode service.”

Mar 14, 2011

House Appropriations Hearing

The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled a hearing for March 17 on improper payments. Social Security is not the only focus of the hearing but Social Security's Inspector General, Patrick O'Carroll, and Deputy Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, will be testifying. Note that there has not yet been a hearing on Social Security's appropriation. Of course, O'Carroll and Colvin will undoubtedly use this as an occasion to tell the Committee that additional employees at Social Security would save money.

No Overtime At Payment Center

An e-mail I recently received:
Hello. I work for the Social Security Administration, Payment Center 7, in Baltimore, MD, as a Claims Authorizer (CA).

We handle the SSA disability case workload. One function of my job is to trigger ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] disability awards to payment, providing the non-medical requirements are met. We also do post adjudicative work, such as imposing and removing workers' compensation offset.

CA's have had overtime offered to us for years, both during the week and on the weekend. We need the overtime hours to keep up with our workloads.

Today, Friday the 11th, all the Modules in the Security West Building (PC7) had emergency meetings to announce that all overtime is cancelled indefinitely for all positions. This is apparently related to the budget situation and the continuing resolution.

Hopefully they will find a way to resolve this and restore overtime soon, at least on weekends. I fear that claimants will suffer if this situation is not resolved shortly.

The disability caseload keeps growing, and the cases and disabled claimants are not going to magically disappear, and it seems that some in Congress don't understand this. It is somewhat discouraging to think that someone who has waited for years to have an ALJ hear their case will now have to wait longer to have their award processed, even after the favorable ALJ decision is made.

$200 Million Gone

It appears that Democrats have agreed to rescind $200 million that had previously been appropriated for investment in Social Security's information technology infrastructure. Information Week Government reports on just how urgent this investment is.

It is unclear where this leaves Social Security's appropriations otherwise.

Update: It appears that the $200 million recission is part of a deal for a three week continuing resolution.

Mar 13, 2011

Fee Payments Stats

Updated numbers from Social Security on payments of fees to attorneys and certain others for representing Social Security claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount




Mar 12, 2011

Why Appropriations Matter

Information Week Government has a strong reminder of why the appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives would be terrible for Social Security. Social Security's primary data center is obsolete. There is a serious risk for catastrophic failure. The House appropriations bill would take away the money already appropriated to replace the data center.

Study Finds Excellent Public Experience With iClaims

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently did a study of claimant experience with Social Security's online application process for retirement benefits. Here is an excerpt (footnote omitted):
To obtain applicants’ perceptions of the iClaim application and determine whether applicants filing for RIB [Retirement Insurance Benefits] using the iClaim application were receiving an appropriate level of service from SSA, we discussed their experiences with 200 applicants who filed an RIB iClaim application in May 2010.5 Based on our discussions, we determined that applicants had a positive perception of the RIB iClaim application process. In fact, 198 of the 200 applicants identified their experience filing online to be excellent, very good, or good, with almost half providing the top rating of excellent (see Chart 1).
There is one big caveat to this. The report is only talking about retirement claims which are, by far, the simplest claims that Social Security takes. A study of the far more complex online disability claims would show that Social Security still has a long way to go.

Mar 11, 2011

Bad Signs

From the Associated Press:
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warned on Friday that GOP senators will not vote to increase the government's borrowing limit unless President Barack Obama agrees to rein in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, laying down a high-stakes marker just weeks before the debt ceiling is reached.
Meanwhile, a senior Treasury official" warns that a government shutdown may be unavoidable

Protecting Employees And Public

The proposed rules to protect the public and Social Security employees at hearings will appear in the Federal Register tomorrow. They do not amount to much.

I am not buying the statement that there can be no further review of a decision to force a telephone hearing on a claimant. Social Security may not review that any further but the federal courts certainly would since it has obvious due process implications. However, I have no fear that this provision will be abused.

Will OIDAP Be Scientific?

The Chairman of Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Committee (OIDAP) has posted an interesting statement on OIDAP's website suggesting that Social Security and OIDAP may be starting to get the message that not everyone trusts them. Here is a brief excerpt:
The OIS [Occupational Information System] project faces a variety of misconceptions that could inhibit its rapid development. Foremost, the OIS’s development is scientific. Because the elements of its development are not tangibly put into test tubes, this premise is often missed or minimized by stakeholders. The OIDAP’s advice and recommendations to SSA for the development of the OIS hinge upon the importance of good science, the scientific process, and scientific integrity as cornerstones.
So the response to the criticism of OIDAP is to claim to be scientists seeking neutral facts.

Give me a break.

No matter how wonderfully scientific the data collection is, there is every sign that OIDAP and Social Security are determined to make decisions before, during and after data collection to assure that the scientific data is presented in such as way as to conform to Social Security's desires to support current policies. Stuffing the data collected into categories such as "Sedentary", "Light" and "Medium" is an inherently imprecise business that requires many judgment calls. The agency seems to want to be certain that there is no one like the Department of Labor who can say "Stop" when it makes judgment call after judgment call in one direction. This has happened before even with the Department of Labor involved. See above. Nothing whatsoever that OIDAP has done would give the least bit of assurance that they have any other plan.

OIDAP's critics are convinced that the U.S. labor market has changed dramatically and that these changes seriously undercut current Social Security policies. The cognitive demands of work have gone up and there are far fewer manufacturing jobs. This should lead to changes in Social Security disability determination such that more claims would be approved but OIDAP's critics believe that Social Security and OIDAP are determined to prevent such changes and may even want to manipulate the data to support denying more claims.

There have been many signs that OIDAP members have been looking way outside their charter to find ways that Social Security can deny more claims.

Mar 10, 2011

Indiana ALJs Want Tests For Malingering; SSA Not So Much

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG)
We received a letter, dated August 1, 2009, from a former CE [Consultative Examination] provider who served as an independent medical source while performing psychological evaluations for the IN-DDB. [Indiana Disability Determination Bureau?] The CE provider raised questions about SSA’s [Social Security Administration's] CE process and claimed the Chicago Regional Office (RO) and IN-DDB discouraged the use of certain language as well as the term “malingering” when stating a medical opinion in a CE report.6 Malingering is a term used to describe individuals who intentionally pretend to have, or grossly exaggerate, physical or psychological symptoms for their own gain. ...

SSA Headquarters and the Chicago RO [Regional Office] have not issued guidelines on suitable language for CE medical opinions and use of certain terms, such as malingering, in CE reports. Although the Chicago RO has preferences regarding suitable language in CE medical opinions, its expectations have not been formalized. Further, while SSA Headquarters does not encourage DDSs to purchase tests for malingering and the Chicago RO would like to cease procurement of these tests, the IN-DDB is still obtaining such tests at the request of administrative law judges (ALJ). ...

While SSA Headquarters’ guidance encourages the identification of malingering, it does not encourage the purchase of malingering tests for mental and psychological impairments. Under “CE Best Practices,” SSA Headquarters’ guidance states, “Do not purchase CEs that include tests for malingering.” The guidance also states, “. . . there is no test, when passed or failed, which conclusively determines the presence of an inaccurate patient self-report.” Related guidance states it is “. . . the observation and assessment of the claimant when challenged with various tasks, and using multiple records and observations from multiple sources, that allows the clinician to make meaningful inferences about a claimant, and the likelihood of malingering.” ...

We believe the IN-DDB’s process of allowing tests for malingering for ODAR, while discouraging the same tests for initial and redetermination cases, sends an inconsistent message to CE providers about SSA’s position on the appropriateness and usefulness of tests for malingering for mental and psychological impairments.
I think it is inappropriate to even talk about "tests for malingering" since there is no accepted "test for malingering." If there were, Social Security would have long since been using it. Supposed "tests for malingering" are sometimes used to try to defeat workers compensation or personal injury claims but they have not been validated and are not generally accepted in the medical community.

My experience is that there are a hell of a lot of Social Security disability claimants with undiagnosed somatoform disorders but not many who exhibit malingering.

Mar 9, 2011

Senate Fails To Pass Appropriations

From the Associated Press:
The Democratic-led Senate on Wednesday emphatically rejected a budget-slashing House spending bill as too draconian. It then immediately killed a rival Democratic plan that was derided by moderate Democrats as too timid in its drive to cut day-to-day agency budgets. ...

The GOP plan mustered 44 aye votes; the Democratic measure received just 42 votes, with 10 party members and liberal independent Bernard Sanders in opposition. Moderates Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and McCaskill — each face potentially difficult re-election bids next year — were among those opposed to the Democratic version.
Update: There are straws in the wind suggesting that some very large multi-year agreement is in the works. Since this would be dependent upon the existence of some reservoir of good will between the parties, I am not going to get carried away with optimism.

Senate Appropriations Hearing Video Available

The video of today's hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee is now available online. It was not available in streaming video as best I could tell.

Update: Commissioner Astrue was surprisingly vague when asked what part of Social Security would be closed if the government shuts down because of an appropriations impasse. Perhaps it was because the answer to the question is complex. Perhaps it is because the Administration would prefer to stay vague on this. There may be more public interest in what happens at Social Security than at any other agency. In any case, we do not know exactly what to expect at Social Security if there is a government shutdown on March 19.

Further update: The hearing featured an impromptu appearance by Nancy Shor, Executive Director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, when Marty Ford had trouble with questions about the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). Ford's difficulty is not surprising since this is not an issue she would have had much exposure to. The House appropriations bill would have defunded EAJA for the rest of the fiscal year.

And a further update: ABC News reports on the hearing -- and, like Senator Shelby, conflates the issue of Social Security's long term financing with the immediate issue of the Social Security's administrative budget.

Commissioner Testimony On Appropriations

Michael Astrue has been testifying today before the Senate Appropriations Committee. His written remarks talk about about what is already happening because his agency is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that freezes the operating budget at last year's levels and what will happen if this freeze continues:
Because of the uncertainty of our budget and the length of the CR, I have had to make choices that will begin to erode service. Our employees continue to churn out work, but they are disappointed and are becoming demoralized about the prospect of watching what they have worked so hard to achieve slip away. I regret that we may not be able to keep our commitments to the American people because we do not have the necessary funding to continue moving forward. ...

While we regret the resulting loss in service, we have tried to prepare for the CR. In July, we instituted a full hiring freeze for all headquarters and regional office staff, and then we further restricted hiring to allow only those components critical to the backlog reduction effort to replace staffing losses. Under a CR, we will continue – and likely expand – the hiring freeze. We will reduce or eliminate, overtime, which our front line employees depend on to keep up with their work.

We have decided not to open eight needed hearing offices, and we will not have staff to open our new Jackson, Tennessee Teleservice Center this year, and perhaps not even next year. We are discontinuing service in over 300 remote service sites throughout the United States. Most of these sites are contact stations housed in locations like libraries, senior centers, or other facilities where a Social Security employee travels, typically once or twice a month, to take applications for Social Security cards or benefits, as well as answer questions. We have also begun looking at field office consolidation where that decision makes fiscal sense.

Each year we send Social Security Statements to non-beneficiaries who are over age 25. These annual Statements cost us approximately $70 million each year to print and mail. In order to conserve funds, we will suspend the current contract and stop sending out these Statements.
The Commissioner also talks about what would happen if the appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives, which would cut funding well below last year's levels, becomes law:
[T]here is a direct nexus between our funding and our service level. We want to prepare you for what a deep cut would mean. Our backlogs will skyrocket, and people will wait considerably longer to receive decisions. As our backlogs grow, it will become more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming for us to eliminate them. Waiting times in field offices and on our 800-number will increase dramatically. Deep cuts will cause billions of dollars of payment errors that will take years to address, hardly a wise use of taxpayers’ dollars. Even if we have specific funding for program integrity work, we need the people to do that work plus all of their other fundamental responsibilities. ...
I hope the House Appropriations Committee has a chance to hear this.

ODAR Always Follows FIFO Except When It Doesn't

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) was asked to do a study to determine whether the agency's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) has been following a First In First Out (FIFO) policy in reviewing claimants' requests for hearings. The report is now out. OIG was reassured by ODAR's regional management teams that ODAR was following FIFO "as much as possible." OIG was informed, truthfully, that there are many legitimate reasons not to review cases FIFO. As best I can tell from reading the report, OIG reviewed only 20 actual case files to see whether hearing offices were actually doing what its regional management teams thought they was doing. OIG concluded that they were.

A few thoughts: First, what in the name of goodness made OIG think they could find out anything about the situation by asking the regional management teams? If ODAR offices are diverging from FIFO, it is not happening at the regional level but at the individual hearing office level. Second, this study took 10 months and all OIG could do was to review 20 individual case files to see what is going on at ground level. On its face this seems grossly inadequate.

I cannot say how widespread the problem is but I see many dramatic departures from FIFO with no apparent justification. This report seems inadequate to me.

My understanding is that at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appeals are assigned a serial number. Basically, VA does not go on to the next serial number until it takes care of the earlier serial numbers. I wish that ODAR were doing this.

Mar 8, 2011

"Protecting The Public And Our Employees In Our Hearing Process"

The Office of Management and Budget has just approved a regulatory proposal from Social Security. You can see all the information from the OMB website below but no summary of the proposal is available. It should appear in the Federal Register soon.

I know that Administrative Law Judges have been seeking to have a security guard in each hearing room but that would not require new regulations and is most unlikely to happen anyway. I am having trouble imagining what this proposal might contain.

TITLE: Protecting the Public and our Employees in Our Hearing Process (3702F)
** COMPLETED: 03/07/2011 COMPLETED ACTION: Consistent with Change

Problems With Headquarters Security Guards Continue

A recent audit report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) shows that the agency's problems with security contractors for its headquarters in the Baltimore region continue. The agency had been using USProtect but that company shut down after two former executives of that company were convicted of tax evasion, bribery and concealment of material information. A Vice President of USProtect became President of Paragon Systems which got a new contract for Social Security's headquarters security. Paragon hired many of the same personnel who had worked for USProtect. OIG's audit of Paragon's work shows serious deficiencies. Here is an excerpt:
Our audit work determined that Paragon was not complying with certain terms of the contract. We found guards were not following post orders as stated in the contract, and supervisors were not providing sufficient post inspection checks. There were excessive errors and discrepancies on the forms used to track post hours worked and account for firearms. These errors and discrepancies could indicate that posts were unattended. Our observations noted several instances where guards did not check the identification of people entering buildings; guards were gathered at posts involved in personal conversations and not focused on post duties; roving guards were not providing foot patrol; and guards were not following operating procedures for x-ray scanners and hand-held wand metal detectors.
The OIG report makes it clear that Social Security was already well aware that there were problems with Paragon.

The OIG report has drawn the attention of the Federal Times.

One wonders whether Social Security would be better off with federal employees providing security.

Mar 7, 2011

Cutting Federal Workforce Costs Money?

John Gravois writing in the Washington Monthly makes the case that reducing the federal workforce may actually cost more money than it saves:
The problem is that, as employers go, the federal government is in fact pretty exceptional. A corporation can shed workers and then revise its overall business strategy accordingly. A strapped city government can lay off a few street sweepers and then elect to sweep the streets less often. But federal agencies are governed by statutory requirements. Unless Congress changes those statutes, federal agencies’ mandates—their work assignments—stay the same, regardless of how many people are on hand to carry them out. ... “It raises the hairs on my neck when I hear people say we’ve got to do more with less,” says John Palguta, a vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit focused on the government workforce. “The logical conclusion is we’re going to do more with nothing.” ...

[I]f Congress and the White House agree to substantial cuts in the federal workforce but don’t also agree to eliminate programs and reduce services, the end result could be more spending and deficits, not less. Strange as it may sound, to get a grip on costs, we should in many cases be hiring many more bureaucrats—and paying more to get better ones—not cutting their numbers and freezing their pay. Because in many parts of government, the bureaucracy has already crossed that dangerous threshold beyond which further cuts can only mean greater risk of a breakdown. Indeed, much of the runaway spending we’ve seen over the past decade is the result of our having crossed that line years ago—the last time there was a Democrat in the White House, a divided government, and calls for slashing the federal workforce in the air. ...

The average voter may imagine federal bureaucracies as overstaffed, full of people leaning on their rakes and sharpening their pencils. But the truth is, most agencies are, if anything, understaffed. The government has grown tremendously in its spending and scope since the 1960s, and the population of the nation has grown by a margin of 100 million people, but the size of the federal workforce has remained remarkably static at about 2 million. Since coming into office two years ago, the Obama administration has bumped up staff levels by about 100,000, in part through “in-sourcing”—bringing back into the civil service inherently governmental work that had been farmed out to contractors. If this leads to better management, it could well mean a stanching of some of the cost overruns and regulatory failures that have been causing the government to bleed red ink. Today’s mindless demands for austerity, however, could reverse this trend.

Mar 6, 2011

The State Of The Negotiations

From Federal News Radio:
... SSA [Social Security Administration] and the union finished a second week of negotiating last Friday [February 25] for a new contract. SSA workers have been working under the old contract, even though it expired more than a year ago.

SSA and AFGE completed their first round of negotiations in January and agreed to 12 of the most straightforward issues in the new contract, said Witold Skwierczynski, AFGE's chief negotiator.

"The entire contract has about 50 issues so the easiest 12 are agreed upon," Skwierczynski said. "We now are embarked on the toughies. Things like appraisals, performance awards, some union institutional stuff like office space, the use of their e-mail and some travel and training issues."

Last week, SSA and AFGE were supposed to meet with federal mediation experts to help push the process along.

"They haven't decided anything despite the fact a furlough is potentially imminent," he said. "We were to negotiate scenarios about what may happen, and how agency will implement furloughs. But since they were unable to tell us anything today about what they are planning, we are discussing proposals we will put on the table on any particular scenario."

He said SSA management wouldn't tell the union who is essential or what jobs are exempt. Skwierczynski said SSA management also didn't want to discuss if there was a funding shortfall, if they planned to keep a short staff or just close offices altogether to make up for the lack of funding.

He added that AFGE and SSA are deferring current contract negotiations to March 22.

"We are up against difficult negotiating team on management side who is reluctant to compromise in many areas," he said. "We are hopeful with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service involved we can whittle down the differences, and then go to federal services impasse panel if we need to."

Skwierczynski said among the top issues employees want AFGE's help with is around workplace stress, specifically around having a more flexible working environment.

He said health and safety issues around indoor temperature and air quality were among the other top issues as were alternative work schedules for field employees, including flex time, telework and credit hours.

"I've done a lot of contracts and there is an evolution involved and we are cognizant that we have to get to it," Skwierczynski said. "The agency's strategy is to keep the current contract in place so they are stretching the process out. We need to try to start getting to our final positions and get to the bottom line."