Mar 31, 2023

Trustees Report Released

     From a press release:

The Social Security Board of Trustees today released its annual report on the financial status of the Social Security Trust Funds.  The combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds are projected to become depleted in 2034, one year earlier than projected last year, with 80 percent of benefits payable at that time. 

The OASI Trust Fund is projected to become depleted in 2033, one year sooner than last year’s estimate, with 77 percent of benefits payable at that time.  The DI Trust Fund asset reserves are not projected to become depleted during the 75-year projection period. ...

What Is This Supposed To Prove?

     From a notice posted today by the Social Security Administration in the Federal Register:

We are announcing a demonstration project for the Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program under title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). In this project, we will test the effect of providing guaranteed income to adults with cancer in active treatment to learn about its interaction with the SSI program. We will modify the program rules that apply to certain project participants who apply for and who already receive SSI payments under the title XVI program.

Mar 30, 2023

Should Probationary Periods Be A Factor In Disability Determination?

     From Emergency Message EM-23021:

This EM provides instructions for all components to identify and code cases where the claimant resides in Connecticut, New York, or Vermont, and the record contains vocational evidence that the occupation(s) identified at step five of the sequential evaluation process (SEP), 20 CFR 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 20 CFR 416.920(a)(4)(v), require probationary periods where work demands during the probationary period exceed the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC). ... 

On January 7, 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a precedential decision in Sczepanski v. Saul, 946 F.3d 152 (2020). The case addressed the agency’s step five decision to find a claimant not disabled despite the record containing evidence showing that work demands present only during employer-specific probationary periods exceeded the claimant’s RFC. In Sczepanski, the RFC included a limitation that the claimant could miss up to one day of work per month. At the hearing, the claimant’s representative asked the vocational expert (VE) how much absenteeism employers would tolerate at a sedentary, unskilled, entry-level job. The VE replied that the typical employer for those jobs would tolerate no more than two days per month of absenteeism over the course of employment. The representative also questioned the VE about absenteeism during probationary periods at the start of employment. In response, the VE testified that typically, employers would tolerate no absences during probationary periods. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding the claimant not disabled based on the ability to perform other work at step five without addressing whether the claimant could satisfy heightened attendance standards imposed by employers during a probationary period. 

The Second Circuit vacated the agency’s decision. The court found the inability to complete a probationary period relevant to the determination of a claimant’s ability to perform other work at step five. In so finding, the court held that “[t]he ability to complete a probationary period is ... tantamount to the ability to keep a job, and … the ability to keep a job is a necessary prerequisite to the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity.” The court remanded the case with instructions for the agency to further develop the record. Specifically, the court instructed the agency to determine whether a significant number of jobs remain that either lack a probationary period or impose probationary-period requirements consistent with the claimant’s RFC. 

We are evaluating whether to publish an Acquiescence Ruling (AR) for the Sczepanski decision. While awaiting further guidance, all components should follow the instructions set out in this EM to identify and code cases potentially affected by the January 7, 2020, Sczepanski decision. ...

Mar 29, 2023

Mar 28, 2023

Mask Requirement Lifted?

     I haven't been there yet myself but I'm told that at least one local hearing office has dropped the mask requirement. Does this apply at all Social Security offices? The plexiglass shields are still present in the hearing rooms, however. I find those to be more of a nuisance than masks.

Mar 27, 2023

54% Of Adults Read Below The Sixth Grade Level

     According to a recent study 54% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read below the equivalent of a sixth grade education.

    Why does this matter for Social Security? That 54% account for the vast majority of disability claims, particularly those disability claims which are most likely to generate appeals. The thing is that if you develop serious health problems, you have something to fall back on if you become disabled if you've got good mental abilities. If you're a fire fighter, for instance, and your knees give out but you're not too old, you may be able to switch to being a 911 operator, for instance, because you have a little background in the field and you probably have enough intellectual ability to learn a new job. However, if  you're a roofer, you may not be able to make the transition to being a roofing estimator, for instance, because you may not have the innate intellectual ability. (I'm sure there are plenty of smart roofers but it's hard, dangerous work with poor pay so who do you think ends up in these jobs, for the most part? Did you think people take roofing jobs simply because they like working outside?) Add in increased age, which reduces adaptability, and switching to work with fewer physical demands but requiring more intellectual ability becomes extremely difficult. Don't think that age makes a difference in adaptability? You're almost certainly young. Wait until you're older. You'll understand.

    There are those on the right who honestly believe that way too many people are approved for Social Security disability, that those people may have some health problems but that they could easily switch to less demanding jobs if it wasn't so easy to get Social Security disability benefits. Well, it's not at all easy to get Social Security disability benefits nor is it easy for most of the workforce to switch to less physically demanding jobs.


Mar 24, 2023

Biden Is No Fool

    From Fox News:

One of the leaders of a bipartisan Senate working group focused on extending Social Security accused President Biden of "not engaging" with them as they scramble for a way to keep the vital program solvent past its expected expiry in nine years.

Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Angus King, I-Maine, said this month that "conversations are ongoing" to reform the Social Security program ...

Cassidy indicated to Fox News Digital on Thursday that Biden’s apparent unwillingness to meet is what’s holding the group from publicly moving forward. ...

 "President Biden has never made himself available to hear about the Cassidy-King proposal to save Social Security from impending 24% benefit cuts," Cassidy said. "Biden calls himself a deal maker; we can’t make a deal without him. By not engaging, the president is choosing that current retirees’ Social Security benefits are cut by 24%."

 A Senate aide told Fox News Digital, "there have been multiple requests from both sides of the aisle to meet with President Biden, and those have not been met." They stressed that the group was bipartisan, and its membership is in "the double-digits." ...

    Yeah, right. The President is supposed to go out on a limb to promote a wildly unpopular plan to cut Social Security benefits and raise taxes even though it's hopeless because no Republican will vote for it anyway. This smacks of bad faith. It's just an attempt by Republicans to immunize themselves from the entirely accurate accusation that they want to cut Social Security benefits.

Mar 23, 2023

This Is Ridiculous

    Social Security's continued use of wildly outdated vocational information in determining disability continues to draw media attention. How much longer will the agency go on with the pretense that it's trying to develop a new source of vocational information? What's it been now, 12 years or more, that they've been working on this and they still can't get the answers they want?

Mar 22, 2023

New Headcount Numbers

    The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated numbers showing the headcount of employees at each agency. Note that these numbers do not tell the whole story. They don't account for part time employees nor for overtime. Overtime is a huge part of the story at Social Security. A Full Time Equivalent (FTE) report would cover that but we seldom see FTE reports.  Here are Social Security's numbers as of December with earlier headcount numbers for comparison:

  • December, 2022 58,916
  • September, 2022 57,754
  • June, 2022 58,332
  • March, 2022 59,257
  • December, 2021 60,422
  • September, 2021 59,808
  • June 2021 59,707
  • March 2021 60,675
  • December 2020 61,816
  • September 2020 61,447
  • June 2020 60,515
  • March 2020 60,659
  • December 2019 61,969
  • December 2018 62,946
  • December 2017 62,777
  • December 2016 63,364
  • December 2015 65,518
  • December 2014 65,430
  • December 2013 61,957
  • December 2012 64,538
  • December 2010 70,270
  • December 2009 67,486
  • December 2008 63,733

Mar 21, 2023

Continued Turmoil In France Over Plan To Increase Retirement Age

     From the New York Times:

President Emmanuel Macron vowed to stay the course on Tuesday after his government barely survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament that ensured the passage of his unpopular pension overhaul but did little to quell the swirling political uncertainty about the future of his second term. ...

Despite months of massive street protests and strikes, Mr. Macron has not said much publicly about his pension overhaul, which increases the legal retirement age to 64, from 62, and he had mostly left members of his cabinet to defend it. ...

With 278 votes in favor, the main no-confidence motion on Monday fell only nine votes short of succeeding — a much smaller margin than initially expected, and a sign that Mr. Macron’s political troubles are far from over.

Even some lawmakers within Mr. Macron’s own party, Renaissance, have expressed reservations the pension changes, and a few have gone so far as to suggest he should try to calm the country by setting aside the pension overhaul instead of forging ahead with it. ...

Mar 20, 2023

GOP Threatens Disaster

     House Republicans have proposed that appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, which begins on October 1, 2023, be cut back to the FY 2022 levels. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee asked heads of major agencies what that would mean for their agencies. Social Security responded that going back to FY 2022 numbers would mean they would have to:

  • Close field offices and shorten hours we are open to the public, cutting off vital access to face-to-face service delivery.
  • Increase the amount of time individuals wait for a decision on their initial disability claim, leading to an average wait time of 9 months, or up to 30 percent longer than today.
  • Implement a hiring freeze for the agency and the DDS, which means a reduction of over 5,000 employees who are essential to processing retirement claims, making disability decisions, answering the National 800 Number, and issuing new and replacement Social Security cards.
  • Furlough staff for over 4 weeks and lay off approximately 6,000 employees—producing even longer wait times than customers experience today on our National 800 Number and in our field offices, causing delays to decisions on retirement claims and delays in processing Social Security cards and verification of Social Security Numbers for individuals seeking employment.
  • Eliminate overtime pay, reducing our ability to keep pace with claims and other service requests

Mar 18, 2023

Nothing Has Changed


Mar 17, 2023

Sound And Fury, Signifying Nothing

     From Reuters:

A Republican U.S. senator's accusation on Thursday that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had lied during a tussle over the future of the Social Security program obscured behind-the-scenes talks between the White House and lawmakers that have been underway for months, according to sources. 

The war of words came in a Senate Finance Committee hearing when Republican Senator Bill Cassidy asked Yellen if Democratic President Joe Biden was aware that Social Security funds will run out within the next decade unless Congress shores up the popular retirement program with 66 million beneficiaries.

When Yellen responded that Biden "stands ready to work" with lawmakers, Cassidy shot back, "That's a lie because when a bipartisan group of senators has repeatedly requested to meet with him about Social (Security) ... we have not heard anything on our requests."

For several months now, Cassidy and independent Senator Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, have tried to address Social Security underfunding as approximately 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. ...

 Cassidy and King are leading a group of workhorse senators that include Republican Mike Rounds, Democrat Tim Kaine and independent Kyrsten Sinema. ...

"It's going to be tough. I don't think we should sugarcoat it. But there are serious conversations in the Senate ... on a package that would improve Social Security's finances," said Shai Akabas, economic policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank in Washington. ...

    The Republican plan is to have a very few Republicans work with a very few Democrats to come up with a wildly unpopular plan that includes an increase in full retirement age. Republicans will provide only a few votes to pass the plan. It will only be passed if Biden strong arms Democrats and probably not even then. Republicans will then run against Democrats on the issue.

    Biden won't fall for this.

    By the way, I'm sure that the Democrats involved with these negotiations are well intentioned but they're fools. This is a dead end.

Mar 16, 2023

Probably No Big COLA This Year

     From CBS:

Seniors and millions of others on Social Security get an annual cost-of-living adjustment (or COLA) that's geared toward aligning their monthly checks with inflation. Next year, that COLA could be 3% — or even lower — based on recent inflationary trends, according to an early estimate from the Senior Citizens League. 

The estimate is based on the 12-month average rate for the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), a basket of goods and services typically bought by workers, according to Mary Johnson, the Social Security and Medicare policy analyst at the Senior Citizens League.  ...

Mar 15, 2023

What's Going On At OIG?

     The leadership of Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG), primarily the Inspector General, Gail Ennis, has come under fire recently. 

    It's far from all that OIG does but they issue various reports, mostly about audits they have conducted. Here are the number of audits for recent years:

  • 2020 -- 55
  • 2021 -- 47
  • 2022 -- 38
  • 2023 (so far) -- 1

Mar 14, 2023

OHO Workload Report


Click on image to view full size

Mar 13, 2023

More On President's Proposed Budget

     Some highlights from the President's proposed administrative budget for the Social Security Administration:

  • Office of Inspector General would get only about a 5% increase in its operating budget. The rest of Social Security would get about 10%.
  • "The Budget includes an increase of $60 million for teleservice centers to reduce wait times by over 40 percent and substantially reduce busy rates from 15 percent to 3 percent."
  • "Addressing Processing Center Backlogs. The Budget includes an increase of over $75 million for PCs to handle more work."
  • "To address the large backlog of initial disability claims and the additional claims we expect to receive in FY 2024, the Budget expands processing capacity by increasing staffing at the DDS offices. As a result, we expect the DDSs to process over 400,000 more initial disability claims and over 200,000 more reconsiderations than in FY 2023."
  • Average processing time for initial disability claims would go down from 220 days to 195 days.
  • Average processing time for reconsideration disability claims would go down from 224 days to 193 days.
  • Average processing time for hearings would go down from 475 days to 320 days.

And remember, this is only a proposal. Congress must act on it and Republicans are saying they want dramatic cuts in agency budgets.

Mar 12, 2023

We’re Not This Easily Fooled

      Yuval Levy of the right wing American Enterprise Institute has written a op ed piece for the New York Times that starts out with a beautifully phrased defense of Social Security and Medicare as “an act of intergenerational gratitude and generosity” that he regards as laudable and necessary but then ends by endorsing a plan to end Social Security as we have known it and substituting a universal benefit set just above the poverty line. He doesn’t even suggest the possibility of survivor and disability benefits. The right wing never discusses survivor and disability benefits. They don’t fit into their Social Security “reform” schemes. Levy goes on about how a universal benefit set just above the poverty line plan lifts a few seniors out of poverty. He doesn’t mention that this plan would mean a dramatic cut in benefits for most. His idea for a voluntary defined contribution plan on top of his version of “Social Security” hardly changes things. At best, that’s a retirement crap shoot compared with the actual “security” in Social Security not to mention that a vast number, probably most, workers wouldn’t make the voluntary contributions. 

     In its own way this may be the most disgusting piece of right wing anti-Social Security propaganda I’ve ever seen. He must think that we’re all fools. This idiotic plan would destroy Social Security and lead to riots in the streets. Levy can dress up his rhetoric with paeans about intergenerational obligations all he wants but his hostility to the very concept of Social Security is obvious. The plan is simple. Transform “Social Security” into something that is widely despised, then end it. That’s the aim of every right wing plan for Social Security “reform.”

Mar 11, 2023

Faultless In Seattle

      The Seattle Times has a feature where readers can share their rants and raves. Here’s a recent one:

RAVE to the Social Security office downtown. Everyone in the building and the office was very kind, helpful and pleasant from the security people at the main door to the security in the Social Security office itself to the clerk in the office who handled my problem. The officer at the front door even saved my glove that I dropped when I went into the building to give to me when I left. A special thank you to all of the folks that I met there that day.

Mar 10, 2023

President’s Proposed Budget

     The President’s proposed budget proposes an appropriation for Social Security’s operating budget of $15.5 billion, an increase of nearly $1.4 billion, from the current Fiscal Year. This would be effective with the beginning of FY 2024 on October 1, 2023, if enacted, but Congressional Republicans say they favor massive spending cuts, even though they do not specify what they want cut.

Mar 9, 2023

Don’t Even Think About Doing This

      From a press release:

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado announced Justin Skiff, age 36, of Castle Pines, pleaded guilty today to wire fraud, social security fraud and money laundering.

According to the plea agreement, beginning around August 2019 and continuing through September 2021, Skiff used his position as a claims specialist with the Social Security Administration (SSA), to fraudulently obtain money from the SSA. Skiff used his knowledge and access to establish Social Security Numbers for ten fictitious children. He then established fictitious records of entitlements for surviving child benefits which he connected to the record of a real deceased individual whose children would receive benefits. These benefits were deposited into a bank account accessible to Skiff through debit cards he directed to be mailed to a P.O. Box to which he had access. Skiff withdrew money and made purchases from this account from October 2019 through September 2021 for a total amount of $324,201.44.

Judge Daniel D. Domenico presided over the change of plea hearing on March 8, 2023. Skiff will be sentenced on June 6, 2023. Wire fraud carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Social Security fraud carries a penalty of up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Money laundering carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction. Skiff must also forfeit any property derived from proceeds traceable to the scheme.

Mar 8, 2023

Mar 7, 2023

Turmoil In France Over Attempt To Raise Retirement Age

     From CBC:

French unions stepped up their fight against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plans on Tuesday as most trains came to a halt, fuel deliveries were disrupted and schools shut in a sixth day of nationwide strikes.

To increase pressure on lawmakers not to raise the pension age by two years to 64, unions said there would be rolling strikes this time, which could go on for days, including at oil refineries and railways.

Street protests are expected to take place in more than 300 towns and cities. ...

Garbage collectors and truck drivers joined the strike, in a sign the protests were spreading to more sectors. ...

Rallies are planned across France after more than 1.27 million people took part in previous protests on Jan. 31. ...

There were reports of students blocking schools while BFM-TV showed footage of workers abandoning cars on the side of the road near Amiens in northern France as others blocked access to an industrial zone. ...

Mar 5, 2023

Public Servants

      While I was at a concert recently, I wasn’t trying to listen in but happened to overheard a snippet of the conversation of the people sitting next to me during the intermission. One of them referred to someone who “retired after a 36 year career as a public servant.” That struck me. That term “public servant” is one you don’t hear much these days. I think it was more used when government employees were held in higher esteem. Why are they held in lower esteem now? I’d say it mostly has to do with Republican attacks on government and government employees. These attacks are often direct and angry  — as in claiming that government is always the source of problems rather than the solution to many problems or that there’s some “Deep State” that frustrates Republican presidents — but they’re also indirect. Underfunded government agencies render poor public service feeding public perceptions that government employees are to blame for frustrating interactions with public employees. It’s an anarchistic approach that claims, in essence, that government is so terrible that we would be better off with no government. If you can’t directly end government, make it function worse and worse to move the public in the direction of your view, mindless opposition to all government.

    We need to honor public servants. They do a super job often under difficult circumstances.

Mar 4, 2023

I Demand You Reopen That Field Office

     A New York Congressman demands that Social Security reopen a field office it has closed in his district. I wish they’d get as excited about the agency’s operating budget. That’s what determines how much service that Social Security can deliver.

Mar 3, 2023

A Big Batch Of "Proactive Disclosures"

     Social Security FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] Reading Room routinely posts "Proactive Disclosures." Usually, it's just a couple of posts a month but they're starting off this month with a bang. Below is what they've posted so far. I guess this is based about recent FOIA requests they've replied to. It makes you wonder why some of these FOIA requests were made. By the way, this includes a list that purports to tell you the top 500 law firms receiving attorney fees in Social Security cases. I don't know about this list but in the past these numbers have been wildly inaccurate.

Mar 2, 2023

A "Bipartisan" Plan?

     From Semafor:

A bipartisan group led by Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Bill Cassidy, R-La. is considering gradually raising the retirement age to about 70 as part of their legislation to overhaul Social Security, Semafor has learned from two people briefed on their efforts.

Other options on the table include changing the existing formula that calculates monthly benefits from one based on a worker’s average earnings over 35 years to a different formula that’s based instead on the number of years spent working and paying into Social Security.

The plan also includes a proposed sovereign wealth fund (as previously reported by Semafor) that could be seeded with $1.5 trillion or more in borrowed money to jumpstart stock investments, the people said. If it fails to generate an 8% return, both the maximum taxable income and the payroll tax rate would be increased to ensure Social Security stays on track to be solvent another 75 years. ...

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., a member of the group, previously said that raising the payroll tax cap was under discussion. Only the first $160,000 of employees' earnings are currently subject to payroll taxes, which help fund Social Security. If Congress fails to step in, retirement benefits will be cut roughly 20% for seniors starting in 2032, per the Congressional Budget Office.

    Are there any real Democrats on this "bipartisan" group? I know that Angus King caucuses with Democrats but he's not a Democrat. 

    None of this has any hope of passage in this Congress.


Mar 1, 2023

Don't Panic!

     Paul Krugman has an excellent piece in the New York Times about why we should not panic about Social Security. You really should read the whole thing. Here are a few excerpts:

...  The thing about Social Security is that from the beginning it was designed to encourage misconceptions. It looks, on casual inspection, like a giant version of a private pension plan. ...

I’m pretty sure that it was set up to look like an ordinary pension fund because that made it politically easier to sell. But in reality, Social Security has never been run like a private pension plan. ...

For one thing, for the first half-century of the program’s existence it had almost no assets; in 1985, the trust fund was only large enough to pay around two months’ worth of benefits. So it has always operated mainly on a pay-as-you-go basis, with today’s payroll taxes paying for today’s retiree benefits, not tomorrow’s.

I often get mail from people claiming that this makes Social Security a Ponzi scheme. But it isn’t. It’s just a government program supported by a dedicated tax ...

I get a lot of mail from people saying that we should simply eliminate the upper limit on the payroll tax. That would certainly raise a lot of money. But bear in mind that there’s no fundamental reason Social Security has to be financed with payroll taxes — we only do it that way because back in 1935, F.D.R.’s advisers thought it would be a good idea to dress Social Security up to look like a private pension fund. ...

The other idea I hear a lot is that we should raise the retirement age — which has already been increased, from 65 to 67. After all, people are living longer, so they can work longer, right?

Well, some people are living longer. But one key point in thinking about Social Security is that the number of years you can expect to spend collecting benefits has become increasingly linked to the income you earned earlier in your life. ...

[C]alling for an increase in the retirement age is, in effect, saying that janitors can’t be allowed to retire because lawyers are living longer. Not a very nice position to take. ...