Jul 22, 2019

His Social Security Account Was Hacked; When He Reported It He Was On Hold For An Hour

     From Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for the Washington Post:
I got hacked. It was scary. ...
My encounter with bad stuff began a few weeks ago when I received a letter from the Social Security Administration via “snail mail.” By itself, this was neither alarming nor threatening. If you’re 65 or over (I am 73), you receive regular notices from Social Security and its first cousin, Medicare.
The letter looked authentic — and was. “Thank you for using Social Security’s online services,” it said. “On June 28, 2019, you successfully created an online account with the Social Security Administration.” This, too, seemed innocuous, except for one troubling detail: I didn’t create an online account with the Social Security. ... I decided to call the 800 number in the letter. (The 800 number seemed legitimate, because the same number appeared on many SSA websites.) 
The wait was about an hour. I was repeatedly tempted to hang up. I’m glad I didn’t. The woman who answered was courteous and helpful. Yes, my personal data had been altered so that my monthly benefit would be diverted to someone else’s account ...
The existing approach to creating reliable identification numbers (say, Social Security cards or driver’s licenses) is known as “knowledge-based verification” (KBV). To prove you are who you say you are, you’re asked questions to which, presumably, only you know the answers: for example, your birth date, home address or Social Security number.
But the KBV “model has fallen apart online,” asserts the Better Identity Coalition, a group searching for more accurate approaches. KBV is hobbled because data breaches have made a lot of “secret” information widely available to cybercriminals. ...
Against this backdrop, I surmised that the SSA must be swamped with complaints like mine: benefits that were digitally hijacked. Wrong. Their number peaked at about 12,000 in 2013. For the first half of 2018, that number was down to about 200, estimates the Office of the Inspector General. Compared with the roughly 63 million Social Security recipients, that’s virtually nothing. ...

Jul 21, 2019

Arguments On Increasing Social Security Benefits

     Congressman John Larson, the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, is pushing the Social Security 2100 Act which would increase benefits by about 2%, change the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) formula to make it more favorable to those receiving benefits, set a minimum benefit level and cut taxes for some low income people. It would also increase taxes for most workers, particularly for those with wages over $400,000 a year. The net result would be to put Social Security into low term actuarial balance.
     John Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing "think tank" has released an argument against any increase in Social Security benefits on the grounds that retirees are better off now than in the past, largely because of private pension plans. I think there's more than a little sleight of hand in his arguments on defined contribution plans. He uses the increase in defined contribution plan assets as proof that there is no "retirement crisis" even though there is no way around the fact that the increase in defined contribution plans has happened because of the decline in defined benefit plans which afford far greater retirement security than defined contribution plans. Still, he certainly marshals facts in support of the thesis that most retirees are better off today than they were in the past. I'm just not sure that's going to continue as defined benefit plans continue their decline and more workers shift into the "gig economy." I know that's not the case now for lower income workers.

Jul 20, 2019

OIG Report On Use Of Averaging When Determining SGA

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
When a disabled beneficiary has earnings from work activity, SSA conducts a work continuing disability review (CDR) to determine whether the beneficiary engaged in SGA. SGA describes a level of work activity and earnings. Work is “substantial” if it involves significant physical or mental activities and earnings exceed the SGA threshold. The Code of Federal Regulations states SSA can average earnings for a period of work when it determines whether a disabled beneficiary engaged in SGA. During the period for which SSA averages earnings, the beneficiary must have worked continuously, without a significant change in work pattern or earnings. SSA has not established a monetary earnings amount that represents a significant change. However, policy directs staff to consider whether the beneficiary changed positions, job duties, or hours when determining whether a significant change occurred. If SSA finds the beneficiary’s monthly earnings average is below the SGA threshold, it pays benefits for all months. ...

Of the 200 sampled beneficiaries, we identified 58 for whom SSA applied averaging inconsistently or incorrectly when it made SGA determinations. Of these, SSA made questionable payments to 51 based on its SGA determination. SSA issued or withheld payments totaling over $651,000 because it did not apply averaging provisions consistently. As a result of the questionable determinations, SSA

  • paid benefits, totaling more than $607,000, to 40 beneficiaries and
  • withheld benefits, totaling more than $44,000, from 7 beneficiaries. 
SSA’s policy allows employees to exercise their own judgment and discretion when deciding whether to average earnings. As a result, the policy for averaging earnings results in decisions that are not consistent and equitable among beneficiaries.We estimate SSA applied averaging provisions inconsistently tomore than 30,000 beneficiaries. This led to questionable benefit payments or withholding totaling almost $419 million.
     I'm sympathetic to the agency on this one. I don't see how they can come up with truly objective standards nor how they can ensure completely consistent application of any standard. These are just difficult to do. Almost always you have limited information about the exact dates of earnings. The earnings are often highly variable. The regulations have to give agency employees discretion to deal with the million and one situations that come up but whenever you give discretion you're going to have people applying the rules in differing ways. OIG can come in after the fact and say that you should have done something different in many cases but it's not like OIG's judgment is the gold standard. If anything, I'd trust the field office staff to make the right judgment calls more than I'd trust OIG personnel who don't do this kind of work on a regular basis.

Jul 19, 2019

Legislative Hearing On Social Security 2100 Act

     The House Social Security Subcommittee has scheduled a legislative hearing on the Social Security 2100 Act for July 25. I don't know what a "legislative hearing" is. Apparently, this isn't a markup session where Subcommittee members approve the final language of a bill. Will the Subcommittee be hearing from members of Congress who aren't on the Subcommittee?
     This bill won't be enacted in this Congress. It may never make it out of the full Ways and Means Committee and it will certainly won't get a vote in the Senate. This is about setting a Democratic agenda for the future, especially if Democrats gain the White House and Senate after the 2020 election.
    Here's a summary of the Social Security 2100 Act from the Chairman of the Subcommittee, John Larson of Connecticut:
  • Benefit bump for current and new beneficiaries – Provides an increase for all beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2% of the average benefit. The United States faces a retirement crisis and a modest boost in Social Security benefits strengthens the one leg of the retirement system that that is universal and the most reliable. [Sec. 101]
  • Protection against inflation – Improves the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) formula to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors through adopting a CPI-E formula.  This provision will help seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities.  Improved inflation protection will especially help older retirees and widows who are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as they age.  [Sec. 102]
  • Protect low income workers – No one who paid into the system over a lifetime should retire into poverty.  The new minimum benefit will be set at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind.  [Sec. 103]
  • Cut taxes for beneficiaries – Over 12 million Social Security recipients would see a tax cut[ii].  Presently, your Social Security benefits are taxed if you have non-Social Security income exceeding $25,000 for an individual or $32,000 for couples.  This would raise that threshold to $50,000 and $100,000 respectively. [Sec. 104]
  • Holding SSI, Medicaid, and CHIP Beneficiaries Harmless – Ensures that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or CHIP. [Sec. 105]
  • Have millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else – Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900. This legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages above $400,000.  This provision would only affect the top 0.4% of wage earners. [Sec. 201, 202]
  • 50 cents per week to keep the system solvent – Gradually phase in an increase in the contribution rate beginning in 2020 so that by 2043, workers and employers would pay 7.4% instead of 6.2% today. For the average worker this would mean paying an additional 50 cents per week every year to keep the system solvent. [Sec. 203]
  • Social Security Trust Fund Established – Social Security provides all-in-one retirement, survivor, and disability benefits funded through the dedicated FICA contribution paid by workers. There are technically two trust funds, Old-Age and Survivors (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI), and that are usually referred to as the Social Security Trust Fund. This provision combines the OASI & DI trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.  [Sec. 204]

Jul 18, 2019

Banks To Get Easier Access To Social Security Number Database

     From Bloomburg:
Banks fighting the fastest-growing financial crime in the U.S. have found an unlikely ally: the Social Security Administration.
Banks have spent years lobbying Congress for better access to the agency’s data as a way to fight costly forms of identity theft. Now, the agency has invited lenders and other firms to join a planned real-time electronic system for verifying that credit applicants’ names match their Social Security numbers.
The system would help banks eliminate sham identities created when fraudsters apply for credit cards using Social Security numbers that aren’t in use. Known as synthetic identity fraud, it is the fastest-growing financial crime in the U.S., according to a report this month by the Federal Reserve. U.S. lenders lost $6 billion from this type of fraud in 2016, according to consultant Auriemma Group. ...
The Social Security Administration has long required handwritten consent from consumers to allow lenders to confirm identities. Under that system, banks pay a one-time $5,000 enrollment charge plus a fee every time they look up someone. ...

Action On Two Sets Of Listings Changes

     The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, has finished work on two proposals for changes in Social Security's Listing of Impairments, used in determining disability. One set of changes for "Digestive Disorders, Cardiovascular Disorders, and Skin Disorder" was cleared by OMB. Expect to see it published in the Federal Register in the near future for public comments. Another, just for Cardiovascular Disorders, was withdrawn by the Social Security Administration. It could have been withdrawn because it faced opposition at OMB or because the agency changed its mind. There's no way of knowing. There's also no way of knowing at the moment what is or was in either set of proposals.

Jul 17, 2019

Expect A Lower COLA This Year

     By the Motley Fool's calculations, if things stay on their current course, Social Security's Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for this year will be about 1.4%, which is half of last year's 2.8% increase.

Jul 16, 2019

Social Security Records Get Prisoner Off Death Row

     From the Washington Times:
Bruce Webster has been on death row for 23 years. Last month he got a stunning reprieve.
A federal judge ruled that new evidence had come to light suggesting Webster has a mental disability, making him ineligible for execution. It’s the first time someone has been saved from the death penalty by a post-conviction diagnosis of mental infirmity from newly discovered evidence, his lawyers say. ...
At the original trial in 1996, Webster’s attorneys argued their client was mentally challenged, but the government had its own expert witnesses who claimed the defendant was faking his disabilities to escape liability. ...
His lawyers at the time had tried to find government records to back up their disability claim, but failed. More than a decade later, his appellate lawyers were able to get Social Security records showing Webster had applied for disability benefits a year before the murder, and had been deemed disabled because of a low IQ and psychological deficiencies. ...
fter looking back over Webster’s evaluations from the Social Security records, Judge Lawrence ruled executing him would run afoul of the Constitution under a 2002 ruling from the Supreme Court, which held the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment prevents putting persons with mental disabilities to death.

In that dispute, Atkins v. Virginia, the defendant had IQ scores around 59. Webster’s scores ranged from 48 to 77.
“The scores themselves were obtained over a period of 25 years and consistently demonstrate that Webster has an IQ that falls within the range of someone with intellectual deficits,” Judge Lawrence ruled. ...

Pressure On New Commissioner On Labor Unions

     A number of important Congressional leaders, all Democrats, including the ranking members of the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and House Oversight and Reform Committee, have written Andrew Saul, the new Commissioner of Social Security, to urge that he reject anti-employee union actions which took place before he was sworn in and to return to the bargaining table.
     I don't know exactly what's going to happen but if Saul doesn't change the course of the labor-management relationship at Social Security he's going to face massive conflict with Congressional Democrats and they are in a position to make his life difficult. There should be a House Social Security Subcommittee hearing with Saul in the near future. It will go a lot easier for Saul if the main employee union at Social Security, AFGE, believes that Saul wants to work with them instead of trying to destroy them.

Jul 15, 2019

Inconsistent Handling Of Veterans' Disability Claims

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
SSA [Social Security Administration] policy provides for disability claims filed by current and former military service members to be expedited. SSA identifies these claims as Military Casualty/Wounded Warrior (MC/WW) and Veteran 100 Percent Permanent and Total (VAPT) disability claims. ... VAPT classifications do not guarantee an allowance for SSA disability benefits. VAPT recipients must meet SSA’s disability medical eligibility and entitlement requirements. ... 
SSA does not define “expeditious” for processing MC/WW and VAPT claims, have processing time goals, or perform regular analysis of the MC/WW and VAPT claims to identify trends. Therefore, to assess the MC/WW and VAPT processing times, we compared them to the average processing time for all disability claims at the various stages of review nationally and by State. We found the following.
  • At the initial claims level, SSA processed MC/WW and VAPT claims only 1 day faster than it processed all disability claims.
  • SSA processed MC/WW and VAPT claims from 37 to 315 days more quickly than all disability claims at the reconsideration, hearing office, and Appeals Council levels.
  • Average processing times varied across States.
There were processing delays attributable to SSA as well as delays outside SSA’s control.
Finally, SSA designed and implemented internal controls to identify and flag MC/WW and VAPT claims to prioritize the processing of those claims. However, SSA could not provide us evidence that it followed its policies and procedures to ensure staff and management properly tracked or monitored MC/WW and VAPT claims.
     By the way, I've seen the same sort of thing with other categories where Social Security is supposed to speed review, such as homeless claimants. A "critical case" designation seems to mean nothing at the initial and reconsideration levels but usually a lot at the hearing or Appeals Council levels.

Jul 14, 2019

Social Security Disability And The Homeless Population

... The primary objective of this research study was to investigate applicant and application characteristics associated with disability outcomes among patients at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) Barbara McInnis House (BMH) Medical Respite Unit and to explore the effect of advocacy in increasing access to benefits for those who qualify. ... 
It was shown that advocacy and assistance with the application process for SSI and SSDI produced an allowance rate for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness considered in this study that was almost twice the allowance rate for the homeless population in the state of Massachusetts and was significantly higher than the state general population. Despite the increase in allowance rate, the application determination times were significantly longer for the population of interest in this study as compared to the general population. ... Medical advocacy letters were found to aid in access to benefits for those with mental health primary diagnoses. ... 
In general, consultative examinations were associated with extremely lower odds of approval with only a 16.67% allowance rate overall. ...
     Programs such as Ms. Booras was investigating are great but there's not enough of them to make a dent nationally in the disabled homeless population. Private representation is critical for this population. For a long time, I've been telling colleagues who practice Social Security law that homeless clients may present some challenges but that you can win their cases and make money by helping them. This study is proof of what I have seen in my practice. My name and telephone number gets passed around at the South Wilmington Street Homeless Shelter in Raleigh, the biggest one locally. I'm happy to have the business. If you practice Social Security law, don't shy away from homeless clients.

Jul 13, 2019

NADE Newsletter

     The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), a voluntary organization of the personnel who make disability determinations for Social Security at the initial and reconsideration levels, has issued its Summer 2019 newsletter. Here's one item from "NADE's Top Issues for 2019":
Reduction in 15 Year Work History: Due to vast changes in the occupational landscape, it is unfair current regulations allow claims to be denied on the basis claimants have an ability to perform a job they performed previously but which no longer exists, or a job they would no longer recognize.

Jul 12, 2019

If This Is The Best You've Got ...

     The idea of increasing the federal estate tax and devoting its revenues to the Social Security trust funds must be gaining support since the National Review has an editorial out opposing the idea. They oppose it because that alone won't solve Social Security's long term financing issues. The thing is that in the same piece, the National Review supports increasing full retirement age and reducing the cost of living adjustment. Those proposals, either singly or in combination, don't solve the long term financing issues either.
     They also try arguing that increasing the estate tax punishes successful Americans but that's ridiculous. An estate tax reduces inheritances for the survivors of wealthy Americans, not the wealthy Americans themselves. The wealthy Americans may have been successful or maybe they just inherited wealth themselves but their survivors aren't inheriting money because of their own success.

Jul 11, 2019

Hearing Backlog Dwindling

     This is a caseload analysis report from Social Security's Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) which was obtained by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) and published in their newsletter (which is not available online to non-members).
Click on image to view full size
     Note that in May the average receipts per Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) per day was 1.39 but the average number of dispositions per ALJ per day was 2.31. It won't take long at that rate for the backlog to disappear. In retrospect, was it a good idea to increase the minimum notice of a hearing from 20 days to 75 days?

Jul 10, 2019

Woman Convicted Of Assaulting Social Security Worker

     From WXYZ:
A 41-year-old Ann Arbor woman was found guilty of an assault on a Social Security Administration worker after she was notified that her disability benefits had changed.
According to a press release, on Aug. 14, 2018, Latasha Long went into a Social Security Administration office in Ann Arbor to discuss issues with her ability to continue receiving disability benefits.
While interviewing with a worker, Long was told that she had reported income on her tax returns that was too high for her to continue receiving benefits. When the employee asked Long to provide additional evidence of her work and income levels for reevaluation, Long began to explain her circumstances, but the employee said that information was not different from what was already recorded.
Long then became angry, according to a release, and began to verbally insult the employee, calling her a "psycho."
When the employee proceeded to stand and close the interview window, Long then hit her in the face with a large binder, grabbed her shirt, then pulled the woman closer to further punch and scratch her. ...

Presidential Candidates On Social Security

     Yahoo Finance has gone to the trouble of putting together the views of the Presidential candidates on Social Security.

Jul 9, 2019

Social Security Won't Ask Supreme Court To Review Hicks v. Commissioner

     The word came out this afternoon that Social Security will not ask the Supreme Court to review Hicks v. Commissioner, the 6th Circuit opinion holding that Social Security's treatment of Eric Conn's former clients to have been unconstitutional.
      I have no idea where things will go from here with these cases. Unless the agency wants to give up, I predict continuing litigation.

ALJs Accuse Social Security Of Bargaining In Bad Faith

     From Government Executive (emphasis added):
The president of a union representing the administrative law judges who adjudicate disability claims has accused the Social Security Administration of bargaining in bad faith. The accusation follows news that federal mediators declared the agency and union to be at impasse in negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement.
Association of Administrative Law Judges President Melissa McIntosh said her union has filed an internal grievance with the agency over its negotiating practices as they discuss a new contract. She said she believes management is focused on standardizing contracts with disparate bargaining units, rather than on improving efficiency for taxpayers. ...
The agency’s “last best offer” to the union, which was reviewed by Government Executive, includes several proposals that have become standard in the Trump administration, including shifting telework policies to be entirely at the discretion of the agency and a drastic reduction in the amount of official time the union can use. In this case, SSA proposed a 90% cut to official time, from an annual bank of 22,000 hours in the current contract to only 2,000 hours. ...
Equally troubling to the administrative law judges are proposals throughout the contract to remove references to the Administrative Procedures Act and an article affirming the “judicial function” of ALJs at the agency. The judicial function article lays out several key duties of administrative law judges, including the power to call for expert witnesses and ensure due process rights of claimants. ...
     I'm not sure that removing the reference to the Administrative Procedure Act matters but it's interesting that they want to remove it.
     By the way, it's Administrative Procedure Act, in the singular. Pluralizing the word "procedure" when talking of the APA is a sign that you're not really familiar with the Act.

Where Are The Headcount Numbers?

     I'm used to posting data on a quarterly basis from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the number of employees at Social Security. I think the headcount is an important number that helps explain the level of service the agency provides. I haven't posted this number in about a year because OPM hasn't released any new numbers in about a year. I know that the Trump administration is threatening major change at OPM, which I don't understand, but why would they shut down this function? Is Social Security's headcount available through any other public source?

Looks Like An Official Photo Of Andrew Saul To Go Up On The Wall

     For many years now there's been a blank space on the wall at Social Security offices where the picture of the agency's Commissioner should go. It looks like we now have the photo that will soon go up there.

Jul 8, 2019

Doesn't Really Solve The Problem

     From The Tennessean:
A controversial [Social Security Administrative Law] judge who was disciplined in Texas over his refusal to watch a LGBT sensitivity training video has transferred to Franklin, Tenn., where he now hears cases from Tennesseans who believe they were wrongly denied federal disability benefits.
The judge, Gary Suttles, was also the subject of an internal inquiry after a Texas newspaper reported he had made disparaging remarks to a Gulf War veteran seeking disability for service-related health problems.
Veterans groups expressed outrage. The Social Security Administration issued an apology for the judge's comments. ...
Three Nashville-area attorneys who routinely represent clients in disability hearings said they were concerned about whether their clients, who include veterans and people of all sexual orientations, can get a fair hearing before Suttles. The three attorneys requested anonymity because they could appear before Suttles in the future. ...
     There is a longstanding tradition of encouraging ALJs who become controversial to transfer. It foists the troublesome ALJ on another region. However, controversial ALJs generally remain controversial even after they've moved.

Jul 7, 2019

Impostor Calls Are A Serious Problem

     From the Federal Trade Commission:
... [T]he Federal Trade Commission is reminding consumers that scammers are increasingly trying to make a buck by falsely claiming to be Uncle Sam. Monthly complaints to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network about scammers pretending to be from the government reached the highest levels on record this spring.
Since 2014, consumers have filed nearly 1.3 million reports about these cons, far more than any other type of fraud. The FTC received about 46,600 complaints in May alone from consumers who were contacted by someone falsely claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, or another government entity, according to the latest FTC Consumer Protection Data Spotlight. These scammers may tell people that their Social Security number has been suspended, which does not happen, or that they are facing arrest because they owe back taxes, and demand payment from the consumer to avoid getting into trouble. Often, they demand that a consumer pay with a gift card, which is a dead giveaway that the consumer is dealing with a scammer.
While only 6 percent of consumers who report a government imposter scam say they lost money, when people do report a loss, it is a significant amount. The median amount consumers reported losing to a government imposter scam from January 2018 through May of this year was $960. Consumers under the age of 60 report losing money at higher rates than consumers over that age, but median individual reported losses increase with age. ...
     The 46,600 number for May is only the number who complained. Vastly more people received calls but didn't complain. I know. I'm one of them. So is my wife. So are many, perhaps most, of my readers.

Jul 6, 2019

The Saga Of Eric Conn’s Files

     Ned Pillersdorf has written a piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader on The Saga of Eric Conn’s Files, And How His Clients Got Shafted. The inaction of the Kentucky Bar Association is inexcusable.

Jul 5, 2019

Article On Vocational Evidence At Social Security

     Jeremy Graboyes has written a piece for The Regulatory Review on The Search for Sound Vocational Evidence in Disability Adjudication. The impetus for the piece came from the recent Supreme Court opinion in Biestek v. Commissioner of Social Security. Graboyes notes that Social Security has been working on a new Occupational Information System (OIS) which might help allay some of the problems that have existed for years.
     Grayobes doesn't mention that the process for creating a new OIS is anything but reassuring. We know almost nothing about what's going on even though it's been underway for more than ten years! There have been repeated delays in revealing the new OIS. It's obvious that there's something so unsatisfactory about the OIS that the agency cannot or will not let the public see it but no explanation has ever been given. There is reason for great concern that the Social Security Administration is trying to manipulate the presentation of data to achieve pre-determined goals for how it affects the number of disability claims approved and denied.
     The Social Security Administration isn't just a neutral adjudicator. It's a party to administrative adjudications with positions it wants upheld. Why should one party to an adjudication get to secretly create and edit evidence crucial to the outcome of cases?

Jul 3, 2019

AFGE Dismayed By Decision On Worker Rights

     From The Guardian:
Workers at the Social Security Administration (SSA) say that the Trump administration has imposed a new contract on their 45,000 workers that could effectively shut down their union and are warning that the same thing could be tried elsewhere in the federal government as part of a crackdown on the labor movement.
A federal panel, consisting mainly of Trump-appointed members, issued a decision in May to impose a new union contract for the 45,000 federal employees at the SSA. The move came despite a federal judge’s decision last year to strike down most provisions in similarly issued orders for violating collective bargaining rights for federal employees. ...
“If the agency is successful in implementing this panel order, it will decimate our ability to represent workers all over the country,” said Rich Couture, an agency employee for more than 30 years and the union’s chief negotiator.
The provisions in the new contract will reduce the time allotted to SSA employees for union activity from 250,000 hours annually to 50,000 hours and ban all workers from using government property to conduct union activities, such as office spaces and government emails and holding files on government computers or in offices. It will also grant management the discretion to eliminate remote work. ...
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said David Cann, director of bargaining for the AFGE. “As we’ve been in negotiation with the Trump administration, we’ve seen a level of hostility toward labor unions that is unique and more coordinated from what we’ve seen with other administrations, even Republican administrations that are philosophically opposed to the mission of labor and the empowerment of workers.” ...
“Once Trump signed those executive orders, all employees who were union representatives lost the right to hold files in their offices, lost the right to represent employees unless we used our own personal leave or leave without pay and even with that management wouldn’t approve leave to represent people,” said Sherry Jackson, a social security field office employee in Connecticut who also works as a union representative in her region. ...

Jul 2, 2019

No More OT For Decision Writing

     There’s a report that the use of overtime for writing Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions was ended yesterday. The agency is so short of staff that it has to use overtime to accomplish a significant part of its workload so this matters.
     I’m not surprised at this development. With the ALJ backload dropping rapidly it was inevitable that the agency would transfer resources to its needier parts.

Jul 1, 2019

Congressional Opposition To No-Match Letters

     From a press release:
Today, Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA), Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis (D-GA) sent a letter to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew M. Saul stating their opposition to SSA’s resumption of sending “no-match” letters. Specifically, the members cite their concerns that the letters may lead to the firing of U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants, that they may result in the unauthorized sharing of tax data, and that they are a poor use of SSA’s scarce resources. 
SSA started sending these no-match letters (also known as Educational Correspondence (EDCOR) and Employer Correction Request letters) earlier this year to employers who have a W-2 employee name or Social Security number that does not match SSA’s records. This discrepancy may occur for a variety of reasons, including typographical errors, misspellings of complex names, name changes due to marriage or divorce, or with respect to undocumented workers. 
SSA had not sent these letters for years because they have been shown to be wholly ineffective in correcting wage records and not a cost-effective use of the agency’s limited resources. Moreover, SSA is prohibited by law from using its funds for any purpose other than administering Social Security, such as immigration enforcement. ...

Jun 28, 2019

Social Security 2100 Act Moves Forward

     John Larson, the Chair of the House Social Security Subcommittee, has been pushing the Social Security 2100 Act. Now comes word that he's planning a hearing on the bill next month and a markup in September. This doesn't guarantee that the bill will proceed to markup before the full Ways and Means Committee much less that it will get a vote on the House floor but it's a sign that the bill is moving forward. Of course, the bill won't get a vote in the Senate in this Congress. This is about setting the stage for what happens after the 2020 election if Democrats control both Houses of Congress plus the White House. Of course, that's a big "if" but this bill would be hugely important if that "if" comes to pass.
  • Benefit bump for current and new beneficiaries – Provides an increase for all beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2% of the average benefit. The United States faces a retirement crisis and a modest boost in Social Security benefits strengthens the one leg of the retirement system that that is universal and the most reliable. [Sec. 101]
  • Protection against inflation – Improves the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) formula to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors through adopting a CPI-E formula.  This provision will help seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities.  Improved inflation protection will especially help older retirees and widows who are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as they age.  [Sec. 102]
  • Protect low income workers – No one who paid into the system over a lifetime should retire into poverty.  The new minimum benefit will be set at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind.  [Sec. 103]
  • Cut taxes for beneficiaries – Over 12 million Social Security recipients would see a tax cut[ii].  Presently, your Social Security benefits are taxed if you have non-Social Security income exceeding $25,000 for an individual or $32,000 for couples.  This would raise that threshold to $50,000 and $100,000 respectively. [Sec. 104]
  • Holding SSI, Medicaid, and CHIP Beneficiaries Harmless – Ensures that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or CHIP. [Sec. 105]
  • Have millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else – Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900. This legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages above $400,000.  This provision would only affect the top 0.4% of wage earners. [Sec. 201, 202]
  • 50 cents per week to keep the system solvent – Gradually phase in an increase in the contribution rate beginning in 2020 so that by 2043, workers and employers would pay 7.4% instead of 6.2% today. For the average worker this would mean paying an additional 50 cents per week every year to keep the system solvent. [Sec. 203]
  • Social Security Trust Fund Established – Social Security provides all-in-one retirement, survivor, and disability benefits funded through the dedicated FICA contribution paid by workers. There are technically two trust funds, Old-Age and Survivors (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI), and that are usually referred to as the Social Security Trust Fund. This provision combines the OASI & DI trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.  [Sec. 204]

Jun 27, 2019

SSA And Its Employee Unions

     Tom Temin has written a piece for Federal News Network on Social Security's problems with its employee unions. The latest is that the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), which is a union, has declared that their negotiations with Social Security are at an impasse.
     This is not just an in-house matter. I'm not sure how many fans the AALJ has in Congress but the much larger American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents most Social Security employees, has friends in high places in the House of Representatives.

Jun 26, 2019

Andrew Saul's Docket

     We have heard little from Andrew Saul since he was sworn in as Commissioner of Social Security. Below are some of the decisions he'll have to make in coming months in addition to the obvious staffing decisions he must make. I'm sure there are other items on his plate, particularly in Informational Technology, but I'm not familiar enough with those to write about them.

What To Do About Hicks v. Commissioner of Social Security
  • Social Security twisted its rules to cut off benefits for as many of Eric Conn's former clients as possible. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the agency on November 21, 2018. Ever since then the Solicitor General and Social Security have been "considering" whether to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. I doubt that they are seriously considering that. I think they've just been stalling until a new Commissioner was confirmed because it's hard to decide how to implement the decision of the Court of Appeals.  They can't stall much longer.

What To Do About Cases Pending At The Appeals Council Which Were Decided Prior To Lucia v. SEC And An Objection Has Been Made To ALJ
  • The Supreme Court decided last year that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) as then appointed were unconstitutional. Social Security changed the way ALJs were appointed to adjust to this decision but there are thousands of cases still pending at the Appeals Council that were heard before the Lucia opinion. The agency has suggested that they want to avoid remanding all these cases for new hearings with different ALJs by having the Appeals Council issue new decisions on its own. This is arguably illegal and probably impractical. A decision on this can't be delayed much longer.

Proposed Regulation That Has Been Published For Comments And Can Now Be Made Final

Proposed Regulations That Have Not Yet Been Published For Comments
Stance On Employee Unions
  • The Trump Administration has taken an extremely aggressive and antagonistic stance on federal employee unions. Social Security has followed suit. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee are already pressuring Saul to soften Social Security's approach. Will he be a loyal Republican and continue the harsh anti-union stance or does he modify it to avoid conflict with Congressional Democrats who can make his life difficult? His message to agency staff suggests that he'll soften the anti-union stance.
Process For Appointing New ALJs
  • The old process for appointing ALJs was found unconstitutional. What will the new process be?
Fee Cap 
  • This one may be wishful thinking on my part. The cap on fees that may be charged for representing Social Security claimants hasn't been raised since February 9, 2009. By any normal standard it's way past time to increase it. However, I'm not sure that the organizations that represent those who represent claimants have been able to generate any real pressure to increase the cap.

Jun 25, 2019

This Isn't Something To Crow About

     Congresswoman Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is taking credit for a $300 million increase in Social Security's appropriation included in the House of Representatives bill. 
     While the Congresswoman's efforts are appreciated, the $300 million isn't enough to keep up with inflation much less to improve service and almost certainly the Congresswoman had nothing to do with it. She's in her first term in the House of Representatives and is not on the Appropriations Committee.

Jun 24, 2019

Evidence To Support The Discouragement Theory

     Back in April I posted a longer piece speculating on the reasons behind the declining number of Social Security disability claims being filed. I'm sure that we can't credit any reduction in unemployment for what is going on at the moment. The number of disability claims is continuing to decline even though there's been little or no decline in the unemployment rate in the last two years. What is causing the decline isn't clear.
     I ended the piece by speculating that at least some of the decline may be due to declining service at Social Security discouraging claimants from applying. I admitted that I had no evidence to support this theory. However, I had forgotten about a study that does support this theory. About two years ago I had posted about a study done by a couple of researchers about what happens to the number of disability claims filed when Social Security closes a field office. They found that the number of claims declined because people with lower education levels and lower earnings were discouraged from applying. The effect they found, 11%, was significant and the effect persisted.
     Social Security hasn't closed that many offices. What's happened is that service has declined at the offices which are still open. It's harder to get through to Social Security over the telephone. Your wait time if you visit in person is longer. People get discouraged and give up.
     This issue merits more study but I think the discouragement theory looks like a major factor in the decline in the number of disability claims.

Jun 23, 2019

Social Security Online System Vulnerable

     From ZDNet:
The 2017 Equifax security breach has thrown a wrench in the process used by US government agencies to verify the identity of US citizens applying for various benefits via its online portals.
This process, called online identity verification or remote identity proofing, relied on data provided by credit reporting agencies (CRAs) like Equifax, as a proof of the applicant's identity. ... 
In 2017, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reacted to this hack by issuing guidance to government agencies, with recommendations on replacing the CRA-based online identity proofing with other solutions like sending an SMS to a user's phone, or having the user send/upload a scan of a physical ID to the government agency, as a proof of identity. ... 

But a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), a bi-partisan government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, has found that only two of six of the government agencies they tested had followed the NIST guidance. 
GAO found that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Social Security Administration (SSA), the US Postal Service (USPS), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were still relying on the old CRA databases for online identity verification. ... 
The agencies who were part of the GAO inquiry said that one of the reasons they haven't migrated to a new system yet, as per the NIST guidance, is because of "high costs and implementation challenges for certain segments of the public," which the agencies fear might prevent certain US citizens from being able to use their online portals. ... 

The Social Security Administration (SSA) and the United States Postal Service (USPS) intend to reduce or eliminate their use of knowledge-based verification some time in the future but do not yet have specific plans for doing so. ..

Jun 22, 2019

Smaller COLA This Year?

     The Motley Fool says to expect a smaller cost of living adjustment this year.

Jun 21, 2019

SSAB Recommends That SSA Get Out Of The Death Master File Business

     The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued a report recommending that the Social Security Administration ought to get out of the business of maintaining the Death Master File that is used to prevent improper payments of not just Social Security benefits but many other types of government benefits. It is also widely used by private financial institutions. The SSAB thinks the Department of the Treasury should get the job. There’s just one problem with this idea. I’m pretty sure that Treasury wants nothing to do with maintaining the Death Master File and would strongly resist any legislation foisting the job on them.

Jun 20, 2019

Trying To Hit The Reset Button

     The union that represents Social Security’s Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) has asked newly sworn in Commissioner Andrew Saul to suspend negotiations on a new contract with the union. I think they want to hit the reset button on the negotiations.

SSA Makes Top Ten List

     The Social Security Administration has made a top ten list — the top ten of agencies with critical federal agency legacy information technology systems in need of modernization, according to the Government Accountability Office (OMB).

Jun 19, 2019

Class Action Helps Protect Some Social Security Disability Benefits From Student Loan Collection

     From Marketwatch:
Since 2007 Linda Carrasquillo has been unable to work due to an injury she suffered at her job cleaning buses.  

And yet, every month for seven years, the government took great pains to collect on a $4,000 loan she took out to pay for her daughter’s schooling — by withholding part of the money she received through her Social Security disability benefits. 

Feeling stressed by the loan, Carrasquillo and her daughter called the nonprofit organization collecting the debt on behalf of the federal government to see if she could work out a deal. But they couldn’t come to an arrangement Carrasquillo could afford. Eventually she fell behind on her rent and faced the possibility of eviction. ... 

But what Carrasquillo didn’t know is that the entire time she was struggling to manage her limited finances, the government should have never been collecting on her debt. She qualified for what’s known as a total and permanent disability discharge, which allows borrowers to have their federal student loans wiped away if they have a physical or mental disability that makes it impossible for them to work.  

Recently, Carrasquillo finally got the more than $4,000 the government garnished from her Social Security checks back — but it took a lawsuit. She’s one of nine plaintiffs in a case brought by Brooklyn Legal Services, a division of Legal Services NYC, in 2016 against multiple federal agencies that settled last month. In total, the plaintiffs got back nearly $23,000 that was garnished from their disability benefits to repay their student loans. ... 

But advocates would like the government to go further by automatically cancelling the debt in cases where they know a borrower qualifies for a disability discharge. A bipartisan group of 51 attorneys general wrote to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last monthasking that she automatically cancel the debt of veterans who the agency has identified as qualifying for a disability discharge. ...

Former Social Security Employee Facing Many Years In Prison

     From the Sacramento Bee:
A former Social Security Administration employee from West Sacramento plead guilty Monday to stealing $480,000 from the agency through identity theft, officials said.  
Eric Lemoyne Willis, 43, targeted at least 160 Social Security beneficiaries and spent the money on trips to Las Vegas and Rolex watches, according to a news release from the Department of Justice. Willis plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, theft of government property and aggravated identity theft, the Department of Justice said.  
From 2003 to January 2018, Willis was employed by the SSA, the news release said. From 2016 on, he was an operations supervisor in the south Sacramento and Lodi field offices. Willis used his power as an SSA employee to access confidential records for multiple Social Security beneficiaries, according to the news release. These records contained personal information, including names, addresses, social security numbers, dates of birth, account numbers, family information and benefit payment amounts, according to the news release.  
Willis sought beneficiaries who received large amounts of money and used direct deposit, according to court documents. 
Then, he gave their personal information to his alleged accomplice, Darron Dimitri Ross, who lived in North Carolina. Ross, who plead not guilty and is awaiting trial, allegedly called numerous SSA offices across the country and impersonated beneficiaries, court documents say. 
He allegedly opened at least 44 online bank accounts under fraudulent identities to redirect the Social Security benefits, according to court documents. If Ross convinced the SSA he was the beneficiary, he would allegedly request the beneficiary’s direct deposit account be changed to one of the fraudulent accounts, according to the Department of Justice. The benefits would then deposit into the fraudulent account until the fraud was detected, the Department of Justice said. Willis and Ross could spend the money in the accounts using debit cards, officials said. ...

Jun 18, 2019

Message From New Commissioner

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast <Commissioner.Broadcast@ssa.gov> 
Sent: Monday, June 17, 2019 4:03 PM
Subject: New Commissioner

A Message to All SSA and DDS Employees

Subject: New Commissioner

This afternoon, I was sworn in as your Commissioner, and I am eager to get to work.  In ways that many of us do not have the perspective to appreciate, running an agency for this long without confirmed leadership is quite difficult.  Please join me in thanking Nancy Berryhill for her leadership, and I welcome her ongoing support.  

Throughout the confirmation process, one consistent theme has been how fantastic SSA employees are.  I can certainly use your help.  Although I am just now beginning my briefings, I am aware that we face a number of challenges.  I look forward to hearing your ideas about how best to improve public service and be supportive to you in that endeavor.  

My plan is to get out and talk with as many of you as I can.  I will also be meeting with SSA’s senior leaders, associations, and unions.  Meanwhile, I thought you might want to know a little about me.  I am a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised in New York City.  My wife of 50 years, Denise, and I are blessed with two daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren.  I am a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and I have worked in the private and public sector and with non-profit organizations.  I am most proud of my nine years as the Chair of the Federal Thrift Investment Board, which administers the Thrift Savings Plan, working to improve service by modernizing it into what is today one of the most successful 401K plans in the nation.    

My family and friends will tell you I have a sense of humor, but I take work seriously.  Hard work is especially necessary when what we are doing matters to every American.  As I mentioned, I have already heard how dedicated you are to SSA’s mission, and your dedication gives me great confidence about what we can achieve.  

I am taking a little time to assess how the agency is doing, and you will hear more soon about my priorities and plans in the coming weeks.

Thank you for the warm welcome I have received thus far.  I look forward to working with you.

Andrew Saul
Commissioner