Nov 30, 2019

OIG Report Released

     Social Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released its semiannual report to Congress.

Nov 27, 2019

Can't Understand Social Security Notices? Here's Where You Complain

     From the Social Security Administration's 2018 Plain Writing Act compliance report:
It is our goal to improve the way we communicate with the public in a clear, organized way. We encourage members of the public and employees to make comments and suggestions at PlainWriting@ssa.gov. We make every effort to respond to all emails within one business day.

Nov 26, 2019

Expiration Date Of Five Listings Extended

     Social Security has published notice that it is extending the expiration dates of five Listings: Musculoskeletal System, Cardiovascular System, Digestive System, Skin Disorders, and Immune System Disorders. No change was made in any of the Listings.

Nov 25, 2019

Proposed Regs On Advance Designation Of Rep Payee

     From a notice from the Social Security Administration that will appear in tomorrow's Federal Register:
The Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018(Strengthening Protections Act)requires us to promulgate regulations specifying the information Social Security beneficiaries and applicants must provide to designate a representative payee in advance of our determination that the beneficiary needs a representative payee.We propose to revise our rules to satisfy this requirement,and to specify that we will allow individuals to designate in advance one or more potential representative payees. We also explain how we propose to consider an individual’s advance designation when we select a representative payee.

Nov 24, 2019

How Much Of A Penalty For Early Retirement And How Much Of A Reward For Late Retirement?

     From Are Social Security’s Actuarial Adjustments Still Correct? by Alicia Munnell and Anqi Chen of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College:
  • People can claim Social Security from 62 to 70, with adjustments to keep lifetime benefits the same, on average, regardless of claiming age.
  • The question is whether the adjustments, set decades ago, are still correct, given the decline in interest rates and increase in life expectancy.
  • For the average worker, the analysis shows that the reduction for claiming early is currently too large while the increase for claiming late is about right.
  • Higher earners – who live longer and claim later – get a really good deal under the current system.
     This is asking questions that have not been asked in quite some time. The study suggests lowering the early retirement penalty which might increase the already high rate of early retirement as well as decrease the viability of the retirement trust fund if not accompanied by an increase in revenues. I doubt that's happening.

Nov 23, 2019

Social Security Scam Calls Skyrocket

     From Business Wire:
Social Security imposter calls are now the top phone scam in the U.S., making up nearly 10% of all consumer phone complaints registered in BeenVerified’s Spam Call Complaint Monitor. The report, which analyzed more than 200,000 phone calls from 2016 - 2019, noted that Social Security scam calls have skyrocketed in 2019, a 23-fold increase over the same period in 2018. ...

Nov 22, 2019

Ways And Means Subcommittee Chairs Object To Ending Telework

     From a press release:
Today, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (CT-01), House Appropriations Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), House Ways and Means Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (IL-07), and House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis (GA-05) sent a letter to Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), to request transparency and more information after SSA abruptly ended a pilot telework program.
“SSA’s Operations division initiated the Telework Pilot in 2013 and has expanded the pilot significantly over the years. Today, roughly one-quarter of SSA Operations staff or 12,000 employees telework between one and two days per week…. While the SSA Operations Telework Pilot has existed for nearly six years, SSA apparently did not adequately evaluate the pilot and has not articulated its future plans for telework. Management’s failure to properly evaluate telework performance metrics while it was in a pilot phase should not be the rationale for suspending telework in its entirety,”
     Just a thought. You know these Subcommittees could hold oversight hearings. There are many other issues at Social Security that go well beyond telework.

Ten Years In Prison For Sending Bombs

     A Texas woman has been sentenced to ten years in prison for sending bombs to the President, the Governor of Texas and the Acting Commissioner of Social Security.

Nov 21, 2019

Hearings To Go Ahead On Friday After Thanksgiving

     I've seen a tweet from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) saying that any hearings scheduled for the Friday after Thanksgiving will go forward despite the announcement that Social Security offices will be closed to the public that day. 
     I've been practicing Social Security law for 40 years and I don't think I've ever had a hearing scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving. (I did have one scheduled for 8:30 a.m. an December 26, however, many years ago.)

Is Bed Bug Problem At Tulsa Hearing Office Over?

     From Government Executive:
Nearly 50 employees at the Social Security Administration as well as members of the public have been exposed to bedbugs and poor air quality for almost a year and a half at a hearing office in Tulsa, Okla., officials with a union representing administrative law judges said this week.
Reports from the Health and Human Services Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration both confirmed that despite the fact that the Social Security hearing office, which is located in a converted mall at 14002 E. 21st St. in Tulsa, is kept “clean and in good repair,” the office continues to suffer from a nagging bedbug infestation, as well as high levels of carbon dioxide related to the building’s HVAC system.
Last month, OSHA determined the problems constituted “unsafe and unhealthful working conditions,” and gave the agency until Nov. 19 to abate the violations. In a statement, Social Security Administration spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the air quality issues were tied to “humidity/air flow issues during the summer” and have been addressed. Tiggemann said the facility has been treated for bedbugs again following a positive “canine alert” test last month. ...
“Staff has taken them home,” [the union president] said. “It’s horrible, and very upsetting that they’ve exposed their families to that. It’s very unfortunate, and costly to eliminate them . . . This is a very serious matter that has impacted staff, judges and exposed American citizens, and it needs resolution.”

Social Security Offices Closed To Public Next Friday

     I received a broadcast e-mail this morning saying that Social Security offices will be closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I assume that Social Security employees have not been given the day off however. That happened in the past when Michael Astrue was Commissioner.

Nov 20, 2019

The Tale Of Andrew McGuffin

     Indy Week has an article giving a lot of fascinating background on the case of Andrew McGuffin, a Social Security attorney-advisor who was fired less than a year after being hired. I had posted earlier about the decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in McGuffin's case.
     It's clear from the records that McGuffin was fired so quickly because he is a veteran. After only a year, it's much harder to fire a vet. The same protections only kick in after two years for non-veterans. The problem for Social Security was that McGuffin demonstrated low productivity but there were no productivity standards for the first year of employment for attorney-advisors. Those kicked in only after the first year after which it would have been harder to fire McGuffin because he is a vet. They fired him anyway. McGuffin sued and eventually won.
     By the way, while it has nothing to do with this case, I can't help thinking of Alfred Hitchcock when I hear the name McGuffin.

New Effort On Fraudulent Calls

     From a press release:
The Inspector General for the Social Security Administration, Gail S. Ennis, and Commissioner of Social Security Andrew Saul announce the launch of a dedicated online form at https://oig.ssa.gov to receive reports from the public of Social Security-related scams. These scams—in which fraudulent callers mislead victims into making cash or gift card payments to avoid arrest for purported Social Security number problems—skyrocketed over the past year to become the #1 type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission and the Social Security Administration. 
To combat these scams, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) will use the new online form to capture data that will be analyzed for trends and commonalities. The OIG will use the data to identify investigative leads, which could help identify criminal entities or individuals participating in or facilitating the scams. Ultimately, these efforts are expected to disrupt the scammers, helping reduce this type of fraud as well as the number of victims. ...

Nov 19, 2019

Some People Are So Stupid

     From the Mercury News:
An employee in a Social Security Administration office and her husband have been indicted in federal court on charges that they stole nearly $45,000 in social security funds intended for others, according to court documents released Monday.
Kimberly Dominguez and her husband, Erick Dominguez, are accused of conspiring to commit wire fraud by diverting funds received by Social Security recipients into accounts they controlled, authorities said. The indictment was executed in the Northern District of California.
According to court documents, Kimberly Dominguez used her employment with the SSA’s Oakland Teleservice Center to access SSA databases and divert the direct deposits. She and Erick withdrew that money from their own accounts and used it, the indictment alleged. ...

Nov 18, 2019

Another Possible Reason Why The Number Of Disability Claims Started Declining In 2011

     From The Role of Information in Disability Insurance Application: An Analysis of the Social Security Statement Phase-In by Philip Armour published in the American Economic Journal in August 2018:
This paper exploits a natural experiment in information provision on US Disability Insurance (DI) applications: the Social Security statement. Although the effect of the statement on DI application was negligible in the general health and retirement study population, among those previously reporting a work limitation, biennial DI application rates approximately doubled. This effect was driven by previously uninformed individuals. Additional analyses show these were new applicants and were no less likely to be accepted onto DI, accounting for a substantial fraction of the rise in DI rolls from 1994 to 2004 and indicating the importance of informational frictions in disability policymaking.
     I know this study is dealing with an earlier time period but there have been changes in Social Security's mailing of benefit statements. Since the beginning of 2017, the statements are only sent to those who are already at least 60 and not drawing benefits. Between 2011 and September 2014, the agency sent out no benefit statements at all. Between October 2014 and the end of 2016 the benefit statements were sent out but only every five years. However, prior to 2011 the benefit statements were sent out annually to everybody over 25. The decline in the number of disability claims began in 2011 just when the mailing of benefit statements ended. The benefit statements have since resumed but only in a very limited way. 
     Correlation isn't causation but this is certainly suggestive.

Nov 17, 2019

SSI Income And Resources Rules Need Fixing And ABLE Isn't The Solution

     From Robert Farrington, writing for the Washington Post:
Living with a disability comes with all kinds of challenges, but the financial impact of being unable to work can be absolutely devastating. Imagine not being able to support yourself due to your disability, but also not being able to save money so you can continue qualifying for government aid including Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
To qualify for SSI, your countable resources must not be worth more than $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple. No matter how you cut it, that’s not very much.
This situation creates a kind of forced poverty for many individuals with a disability and the family members who care for them. But many experts say that the 529 ABLE Account, which was first introduced in 2014, can help curb this ongoing problem. ...
Contribution limits are extremely generous. With a 529 ABLE Account, individuals with disabilities are able to save up to $15,000 per year in 2019. On top of that, a designated beneficiary who works can contribute their income up to the poverty line for a one-person household, notes the IRS. ...
     SSI income and resources rules are barbaric so we create a loophole so the well to do can help their disabled family members. I've got a better idea. Why don't we just make the SSI income and resource rules less barbaric so every family can benefit! I think the illustration that the Post picked for this column -- a pretty blonde girl who's a double amputee -- pretty much sums up what's going on with ABLE.

Nov 16, 2019

Cue The Aggie Jokes

     From the Texas A&M student newspaper:
Texas A&M management senior Adriana Lopez received a scam call on Oct. 24 that ultimately led to her losing $10,000. Lopez said she hopes these events will show other students to be more cautious about who they give their information to.
Lopez said the beginning of this ordeal started with a person on the phone who claimed to work for Social Security whose phone number appeared to be the same as the Social Security Administration. This person said someone was buying drugs in Latin America using her name and Social Security number, and he threatened Lopez with time in jail if she did not do something to solve this problem. ...

Nov 15, 2019

Proposed Regs On CDRs

     Social Security will publish proposed regulations on the frequency of continuing disability reviews in the Federal Register on Monday. You can read the proposal today.
     They propose to add a new category, Medical Improvement Likely (MIL), to be reviewed every two years. MIL is aimed at a group of impairments which they say fit between the categories of Medical Improvement Expected (MIE) and Medical Improvement Possible (MIP). They say they will include anxiety related disorders in this category. I don't understand that. Anxiety disorders don't respond well to treatment. Panic disorders, the most commonly disabling anxiety disorder, are quite unresponsive to treatment.
     They propose to increase the frequency of reviews for the category of Medical Improvement Not Expected (MINE) from seven years to six years.
     Overall, they expect to increase Continuing Disability Review (CDRs) by more than 1.1 million a year.
     I love how this is all couched in language about helping people get back to work. That's baloney.  Disability benefits recipients already have plenty of incentives to return to work. Some people who are cut off benefits return to work; many don't. This certainly doesn't help anyone return to work.
     This is just a proposal. The public can comment. Social Security must review the comments. Once the agency is finished reviewing the comments and making any changes they want to make, it has to go back to the Office of Management and Budget for review before publication as final regulations. This process may extend past the next inauguration day. Even if pushed out before that date, an incoming Administration may decide not to implement them.

Win For NTEU On Telework

     The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) has given the union (NTEU) that represents attorneys and decision writers in its Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) a win on telework. Social Security unilaterally terminated its contract with the union and refused to agree to terms requiring telework. FLRA ruled that Social Security had failed to produce evidence to back up its case and ruled for the union.

Nov 14, 2019

Bonus For Promptness

     From Emergency Message EM-19032:
This emergency message (EM) provides instructions on how to handle inquiries from a one-time notice that was sent to correctional and mental health reporters and facilities.
On October 25, 2019, SSA mailed a one-time notice to participating correctional and mental health reporters and facilities to inform them of a change to Title XVI incentive payments. This letter is a follow-up and reminder sent to the original notice we previously sent to correctional and mental health reporters on July 2, 2018. ...
The new Title XVI incentive payment rules provide the following:
For every Title XVI recipient we suspend due to the inmate information provided, we will pay the institution:
    · $400 for information received within 15 days of the confinement; or
    · $200 for information received after 15 days but within 90 days after confinement. ...

Social Security Wants Info On Which Disabled People To Target For Reviews

     From a notice from the Social Security Administration that will appear in tomorrow's Federal Register:
We are announcing the fourteenth National Disability Forum. The purpose of this public forum is to obtain feedback from experts in their field on what impairments have a likelihood to improve. This forum will be moderated,and include up to five panelists presenting information on the topic. Additionally, there will be a combined question and answer session during which the panelists will address questions from those on site and received by email during the forum.
DATES:Tuesday December 3, 2019 from1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
ADDRESSES:Meeting Location: Partnership for Public Service, 1100 New York Ave NW, Suite 200 East, Washington, DC 20005 ...
     The truth is that there are very few Social Security disability recipients who are likely to improve. Why? The one year duration requirement in the definition of disability enacted by Congress. If you're going to be disabled for at least a year, you're very unlikely to improve significantly thereafter. You could easily find a lot of disability recipients to cut off if you just reduced the duration requirement to three months.
     By the way, remember that Social Security will probably soon publish proposed regulations having to do with disability terminations. You can see that something is coming. I'm sure they want to find a way to cut a lot of people off disability benefits. I doubt they'll succeed but we'll see.

Nov 12, 2019

Proposed Regs On CDRs Coming

     The Office of Management and Budget has cleared for publication in the Federal Register a package of proposed regulations on the frequency and notice of continuing disability reviews. This is only a proposal. The public may comment on the proposed rules. This proposal had been pending at OMB since March 13. That's an extraordinary time for a proposal to be pending, suggesting that there may be something controversial in the proposal. This is Social Security's vague description of the proposal published in the Unified Agenda last Spring:
... The proposed regulations would add a new category to our existing medical diary categories that we use to schedule CDRs and would revise the criteria we follow to place a case in each of the categories. They would also change how often we perform a CDR for claims with the medical diary category for permanent impairments. These revised regulations would ensure that we continue to identify medical improvement at its earliest point and remain up to date with current research.

Nov 10, 2019

Social Security Treated Employee Worse Because He Was A Vet

     From Bloomberg Law:
A former attorney adviser with the Social Security Administration convinced the Federal Circuit Nov. 7 that his veteran status was a substantially motivating factor in the agency’s 2011 decision to fire him.
As a qualifying veteran hired by a government agency, Clarence McGuffin was entitled to a shorter probationary period than other non-veteran new hires before the full suite of Civil Service Reform Act rights vested. Those rights include the right to appeal adverse employment actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board....
 “We want to terminate him so that he does not acquire MSPB rights,” read one intra-agency email quoted in the opinion. Another email stated that McGuffin was a “vet” who “has to be terminated in his first year.” ...
McGuffin was let go from his attorney adviser position in SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in part because he allegedly wasn’t producing his “fair share” of work, a monthly quantity determined by dividing the office’s caseload across all of the attorney advisers charged with authoring benefits appeals decisions. But SSA isn’t supposed to use an attorney adviser’s “fair share” production as a performance metric until their second year with the agency, Reyna said. ...
“The record is clear that SSA closed the door on Mr. McGuffin well before the end of his first year to avoid the inconvenience of defending itself should Mr. McGuffin assert his procedural safeguards afforded under the CSRA,” Reyna said. The court reversed the contrary decision from the MPSB and remanded the case for further proceedings. ...
The case is McGuffin v. SSA, Fed. Cir., No. 17-2433, 11/7/19. ...

Nov 9, 2019

Former Social Security Employee Sentenced

   From the Associated Press:
A Social Security Administration employee who accessed numerous accounts and falsified records so he could steal nearly $100,000 from the agency has been sentenced to nearly three years in prison.
Nicholas Pao had pleaded guilty in March to theft of government funds and two counts of aggravated identity theft. The 38-year-old Egg Harbor Township [NJ] recently received a 34-month prison term and must pay full restitution to the agency. ...

Nov 8, 2019

So Why Is Telework Ending?

     From Government Executive:
Since the Social Security Administration’s announcement last week that it would end its seven-year-old telework pilot program for nearly 12,000 employees, officials have cited two reasons for Commissioner Andrew Saul’s decision: long wait times for customers and an inability to evaluate employee performance. ...
[C]ounter to the agency’s assertions, the inspector general found that telework actually improved productivity for employees at teleservice centers, which administer the 800 number. In fiscal 2017, teleworkers took an average of four additional calls per day than non-teleworkers, resolved those calls more quickly than employees in the office and spent an additional half hour each day helping customers. ...
[A Social Security spokesperson] told Government Executive that another reason for ending the telework program is that managers cannot evaluate teleworking employees’ performance under the current rules. ...
That argument perplexed officials at the American Federation of Government Employees. Sherry Jackson, third vice president of AFGE Council 220, which represents employees in Social Security’s operations units, said teleworking employees’ actions are heavily monitored for evaluation.
“All of our keystrokes are measured,” Jackson said. “Any inputs we do on the computer are monitored and measured. Everything on the SSA system is measured, so it’s disingenuous to say that there’s no productivity and no control over what people are doing in their homes, because everything on a government computer is measured and recorded. If people were not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, this pilot would have been ended and not continued for seven years.” ...
     We really need a House Social Security Subcommittee oversight hearing.

Nominee Moves Forward Despite Misuse Of Confidential Social Security Information

     From the New York Times (emphasis added):
A judicial nominee slated for a key Senate committee vote on Thursday helped devise an illegal Education Department effort to use private Social Security data to deny debt relief to thousands of students cheated by their for-profit colleges, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.
The plan, outlined by Steven J. Menashi when he was acting general counsel under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was ruled by a federal judge to violate federal privacy laws. She ordered the department to stop the practice.
In the memo, President Trump’s appeals court nominee, who left the Education Department to join the White House legal team, outlined the department’s plan to use earnings data from the Social Security Administration to forgive only a small percentage of debts shouldered by 30,000 borrowers who attended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain that the Obama administration found misled thousands of students. Corinthian’s collapse left its students and graduates with worthless degrees and mountains of debt. ...
The department halted use of the data after Judge Kim’s ruling. It had obtained the data from the Social Security Administration to implement another Obama-era regulation intended to force for-profit colleges to show that their degrees would lead to gainful employment.  
In his memo, Mr. Menashi wrote that data obtained to hold for-profit colleges accountable could be repurposed to scrutinize their students. ...
     Menashi's nomination cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday by a vote of 12-10.

Nov 7, 2019

A Lot More Going Out Than Coming In

     This was obtained from Social Security by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) and published in its newsletter, which is not available online to non-members. It concerns operations in the agency's Office of Hearings Operations. 

Nov 6, 2019

Data Security Lacking

     From a recent study by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Our objective was to determine whether the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) overall information security program and practices were effective and consistent with the requirements of the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014 (FISMA), as defined by the Department of Homeland Security(DHS). ... 
Although SSA established an Agency-wide information security program and practices, we identified a number of deficienciesrelated to Risk Management, Configuration Management, Identity and Access Management, Data Protection and Privacy, Security Training, Information Security Continuous Monitoring, Incident Response, and Contingency Planning. Many of the weaknesses we identified were similar to the deficiencies reported in past FISMA performance audits. SSA’s information security program was “Not Effective” according to DHS criteria. ...
     No details are given in the brief stub of a report released to the public.

Nov 5, 2019

Abiity to Manipulate Is A Big Deal

     Here is an excerpt from a news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued on February 21, 2019:
... Almost all workers were required to use fine manipulation (97.0 percent) and gross manipulation (99.4 percent). ...
     Note that Social Security Ruling 96-9p says that  "any significant manipulative limitation of an individual's ability to handle and work with small objects with both hands will result in a significant erosion of the unskilled sedentary occupational base." It seems to me that that it would now be more accurate to say that even the loss of manipulation results in a significant erosion of the entire occupational base, without regard to exertional level and without regard to the distinction between gross and fine manipulation.
     I have checked with Social Security. This news release was based on a study done at the behest of the Social Security Administration and is part of the effort to produce a new occupational information system. 
     Here are some other excerpts with less immediate importance:
  • Approximately 31.5 percent of workers had preparation time requirements that included more than a short demonstration and up to 1 month of preparation and 19.0 percent were required to have between 2 years and 4 years of preparation time. 
  • High school was the most common minimum education level for workers in 2018, with 40.7 percent of jobs requiring at least a high school diploma. 
  • There was no minimum education level required for 31.5 percent of jobs, while a bachelor’s degree was required for 17.9 percent of workers. 
  • On-the-job training was required for 76.8 percent of all civilian workers in 2018. Prior work experience was required for 47.0 percent of workers and 33.0 percent of workers were required to have completed pre-employment training. 
  • A medium strength level was required for 35.5 percent of workers, while a sedentary strength level and a light strength level were required by 26.6 percent each. A heavy work strength level was present for 9.6 percent of workers and a very heavy work strength level accounted for the remaining 1.7 percent of workers. 
  • Traditional keyboarding was required for 63.3 percent of workers. 
     There is nothing in this summary showing the number or percentage of jobs at, let's say, the sedentary level where the specific vocational preparation time was 30 days or less, the definition of unskilled work. If you're at all familiar with these matters, you know that's a critical question. BLS has released some access to the underlying data. I can do some searches on it but I'm unable to do a combined search for both unskilled and sedentary jobs. I'm not saying you can't do such a search. I'm just saying I can't. I hope others with more familiarity and more skill than me can take a look at this database. I'm going to take a wild guess that Social Security already knows the answer to this question.

Nov 4, 2019

The Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

     A press release from Social Security:
“Thank you for your interest in the Social Security Administration and for reading this Open Letter to the Public to learn more about what we are doing to improve service.
A Little about Me:
I have been frequently asked why, at age 73 with a loving wife of 51 years, a beautiful family, and a successful business career, I would want to take on the responsibility and stress of running a huge government organization that affects nearly every American. My answer is simple. I took the job as Commissioner of Social Security because I saw that this very important agency faced an increasing number of challenges. Millions of Americans depend on SSA to do our job well, each day, no excuses—because when we don’t, people suffer. I took the job because SSA must dramatically improve customer service for you, your loved ones, and everyone who depends on our programs.
What is My Plan?
When I speak to groups of SSA employees, to my senior managers, and to external groups including Congress, they ask what I plan to accomplish. It is no secret that the government is full of bureaucratic processes. There are Agency Strategic Plans, Annual Performance Plans, Budget documents for this and future years, IT strategic plans, and any number of internal organization planning documents. I understand that these writings serve to provide direction and transparency, but I doubt most employees or members of the public read them. I am hopeful that this letter will answer your questions in a straightforward and easy to follow way.
My plan is rooted in common sense. SSA has many departments and over 60,000 employees who perform millions of functions each year. But, whether it is issuing retirement checks, processing disability claims, or providing Social Security cards, our fundamental mission is to ensure timely and accurate service for the public. My plan is to emphasize and restore fundamental public service so that when you call us, we answer timely. When you come to our offices, we serve you timely. When you apply for benefits, you receive a timely answer from us and, if you are approved for benefits, you receive a timely check from us. Some SSA employees and the three unions who represent them may suggest we simply want to push employees even harder. I’ve run enough businesses and organizations to know that no employer gets 100% from every employee every day—there is always room to improve. Over the past 5 months, I have met with and observed many, many SSA employees. Let me tell you what I determined: they care. They are just as concerned and stressed about work piling up as I am. They dread the feeling of coming into work knowing the public will line up and wait far too long for correct answers. That is demoralizing. I don’t want our excellent employees to feel beaten down or think that headquarters fails to appreciate their challenges. By getting wait times down, we allow our employees to do their work in a better environment where they can focus on the action in front of them not the piles of work around them.
As important as it is to serve you timely, we need to serve you well. We need to evaluate how we train our employees, review their work and give feedback, and appropriately simplify our policies to be easier to implement and understand. I have reviewed audits and noted that we consistently receive poor marks in certain areas. You should expect that we will properly pay benefits to only the folks who are entitled to them and we should always pay them the correct amount. That is important not only for stewardship but also to each of you who receives a check from us. I also cannot ignore the message from significant workloads like litigation, which can occur when we do not properly apply policy. Yes, we must address the affected cases but we must also fix the root cause. Getting things wrong has been very costly to us. It is time to invest in ensuring we get things right.
Part of the answer is technology. However, before we can readily implement more efficient systems, we have to fix some core issues. Did you know we store a beneficiary’s address in something close to 20 different systems? If you move, we can change your address in one place but that may not change it in the others. We are working to fix this and other problems. Our new approach will not look at our services from our vantage point, such as using a specific system to complete a singular action we are working on in the moment. We will look at our work from your perspective. Meaning, if you go online and then call us and then come in to an SSA office, our employees will know that history and you don’t have to start from square one each time.
However, technology alone is not the solution. Sure, many people like the idea of going online for convenient service and we need to modernize and meet that need. But, many other people need a little extra help, a little more information, maybe even some reassurance from an expert. Thus, we need a responsive workforce. We already have people who care deeply about our mission and the public. Now we need to have enough folks to meet the demand so that they can spend the time they need to handle each customer’s need correctly. We need to implement additional quality checks so that we can let our employees know when they misapplied a policy or missed a key issue. Our employees want this feedback. We need to give our employees what they need to get you the right result.
We need to assess how we do our work, how we use technology, and how we empower our employees at SSA. All of those things are complicated, but they are necessary to accomplish my plan for SSA. What is the plan? We are going to work every day to improve the public service you receive from us. As I said, common sense.
What happens next?
Right now, SSA’s Office of Systems is working with public and private sector experts to modernize our technology infrastructure so that we can serve you more efficiently and with greater accuracy. At the same time, we are shifting resources to the front lines of our public service operation. Our Office of Operations manages nearly all of our public facing services like the field offices in your communities and the National 800 Number. It is logical and appropriate that we focus on these offices first. Some people may believe that is a “hiring freeze” but I call it “smart hiring”—sending our resources to the front lines where you benefit most. Dependent on our final appropriation for fiscal year 2020, we are targeting additional hiring in these public service offices, and I have already directed that SSA hire 1,100 more people to do this work. During a time of more constrained resources, the agency closed field offices early on Wednesdays. We are ending that practice to provide you with additional access to our services. We are also ending a telework pilot, which was implemented without necessary controls or data collection to evaluate effectiveness or impact on public service. I support work-life balance for SSA employees consistent with meeting our first obligation: to serve the public. A time of workload crisis is not the time to experiment with working at home, especially for the more than 40,000 employees who staff our public facing offices.
Modernizing technology and getting more employees back into the offices are critical first steps. We will take additional steps to chip away at our current wait times; however, the first obvious move is an infusion of resources into key offices, increasing the availability of those offices to the public, and holding all of our employees accountable. We know how important our work is and understand the consequences of poor service.
You will hear from me again with straightforward information about our progress. I appreciate your patience as we work to improve our performance in service to you.”
     Am I wrong to think that this shows that Saul shares the standard right wing assumption that poor service at federal agencies is due to lazy federal employees? That's so naive.
     I really want better service at the field offices but I strongly doubt that keeping field offices open on Wednesday afternoons will achieve that goal. I suspect it will have the opposite effect. This is the sort of thing that comes out of the assumption that federal employees are lazy.
     Adding an additional 1,100 employees to front line positions is great but funding is going down, not up, so the question has to be "What other jobs will be cut?" He doesn't answer that question. Hearings operations is the obvious answer but who knows?
     By the way, "successful business career"? I'm not sure what he's done that's so successful other than being born extremely wealthy and not completely screwing up his inheritance.

FLRA Investigator Finds Evidence Of Attempted Intimidation Of ALJ Union Leaders

     From Government Executive:
An investigator with the Federal Labor Relations Authority has preliminarily concluded that the Social Security Administration illegally attempted to intimidate officials with the Association of Administrative Law Judges earlier this year.
In June, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that in January, management officials verbally threatened to “discipline” union officials after they took official time and left the workplace to prepare for a collective bargaining negotiation session, despite the fact that the practice is spelled out in an existing union contract and a memorandum of understanding.
“We don’t have union offices like other unions, so we need more flexibility to do union-related work, both for obviously practical reasons and for confidentiality concerns,” AALJ President Melissa McIntosh said. “We were preparing for contract negotiations, and [management] knew that because the period was negotiated in our ground rules.”
McIntosh said that the agency officials did not specify how they would discipline union representatives who continued to use official time off-site, and they refused to submit the warning in writing.
“So I contacted the acting commissioner [Nancy Berryhill by email], and a meeting resulted,” McIntosh said. “There, we were admonished [by Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber] to ‘adhere to the chain of command,’ to be patient and that the incident was a small matter.”
This week, the FLRA informed the union and the agency that an investigator has determined that the complaint “has merit,” meaning there is sufficient evidence to indicate that management interfered with employees’ rights to engage in union activity. ...

Nov 3, 2019

Buttigieg Social Security Disability Proposals

     Pete Buttigieg is the first Presidential candidate to issue detailed proposals to help disabled Americans. Here’s the section of his plan dealing with Social Security:
  • Eliminate the “benefit cliff” for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) so benefits gradually phase out until recipients reach nearly $45,000 in annual earnings.
  • Eliminate SSDI’s ineffective current work incentives.
  • Reduce excessive wait times for SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) appeals cases.
  • Enable SSDI participants to start receiving income benefits as soon as they are admitted to the program.
  • Eliminate SSDI’s 24-month waiting period for Medicare coverage.
  • Update critical SSI thresholds to allow people to receive greater assistance as costs of living rise.

Nov 2, 2019

Schaeffer To Be Honored

     Steven L. Schaeffer, of Social Security's Office of Inspector General, is one 141 federal executives to receive the Presidential Rank Award this year. A large bonus comes along with the honor.

Nov 1, 2019

A Plan To Appear To Be Doing Something

     From CNBC:
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is taking the lead on a new proposal aimed at fixing funding shortfalls for Social Security, Medicare and the nation’s crumbling highways. ...
Romney, together with a group of senators from both sides of the aisle, introduced a bill this week to look at government trust funds that are expected to be depleted in the next 13 years.
The affected trusts are the Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare Hospital Insurance and Highway Trust Fund. ...
The Romney-led proposal, called the Time to Rescue United States’ Trusts, or TRUST, Act, would create congressional committees to evaluate how to bolster solvency or make other changes to improve the programs.
It is supported by Sens. Doug Jones, D-Ala.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; and Todd Young, R-Ind.
Companion legislation has also been introduced in the House by Reps. Ed Case, D-Hawaii; Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.; Ben McAdams, D-Utah; and William Timmons, R-S.C. ...
Once the TRUST Act is passed, Treasury would have 30 days to deliver a report to Congress on the status of the funds.
Congressional leaders would form a rescue committee for each trust fund. Those committees would be tasked with coming up with legislation to repair those funds’ solvency and identify other improvements the programs may need.
At least two members of each party would be required to work on the legislation.

The proposal also says that any qualifying bills that emerge from the process get expedited consideration in both the House and Senate. ...
      This bill, of course, is going nowhere in this Congress. Even if passed, it solves nothing. It would merely provide a process by which the problem could be solved if there was some consensus, which there isn't. If this bill has a meaning, it's that it's a sign that there are at least three Senate Democrats, Jones, Manchin and Sinema, who aren't interested in the Social Security 2100 Act pending in the House of Representatives that would solve Social Security's long term financial problems with tax increases. It's hard to imagine Social Security 2100 passing in the Senate even after the 2020 election without those Senate Democrats on board. Romney's bill makes it look like you're doing something even when you're furiously backpedaling away from doing anything.