Why are Social Security office hours so customer-unfriendly?

News-DemocratJune 18, 2014 

Why does the Social Security office on Lebanon Avenue open at 9 and close at 3 most weekdays (only 9-12 on Wednesdays) and not open on Saturday? Some people are still working when they must go there for questions. Some can't use Internet. -- Tom Westerheide, of Belleville

Your timing couldn't be more uncanny. The day after I opened your letter, Congress released a report telling how the Social Security Administration is closing offices at a record clip and cutting hours -- just as the number of Baby Boomers applying for benefits continues to skyrocket.

The reason? Social Security officials blame Congress itself for its continued budget hacking of essential services. So if you want to complain, you might call your representative and senators and see what's going on. Who knows? If they get enough complaints, they might do something and improve their 16 percent approval rating.

As it stands, though, it's a trend that's been accelerating for some time. On July 22, 2011, officials announced that Social Security field offices nationwide would close to the public 30 minutes earlier each day as of Aug. 15, 2011.

"While agency employees will continue to work their regular hours, this shorter public window will allow us to complete face-to-face service with the visiting public without incurring the cost of overtime for our employees," Commissioner Michael Astrue said in an agency release at the time.

"Congress provided our agency with nearly $1 billion less than the president requested for our budget this fiscal year, which makes it impossible for us to provide the amount of overtime needed to handle service to the public as we have in the past."

As you know, the situation has only worsened since. According to the latest numbers, Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a fire-year period in the agency's history. In addition, the agency has closed 533 temporary mobile offices that often serve remote areas and has reduced hours at the remaining 1,245 field offices.

Some in Congress are complaining that the cuts are being made willy-nilly with little regard to the relative importance of the offices being closed.

"Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close officers and reduce access to services," said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which compiled the report. "The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change."

In response, Social Security says it can only do so much with less funding and maintains it strives to allocate resources as wisely as possible. The agency's operating budget was $11 billion last year, 4 percent less than 2010.

"No one should be surprised that service hours have been reduced, wait times have increased and local offices have closed," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat.

As you obviously know, this hardly could have come at a worse time. More than 47 million people receive Social Security retirement benefits, almost a 20 percent increase since 2004. About 11 million people receive disability benefits as well, a 38 percent increase.

Social Security, of course, says most people's questions can be handled on the phone or the Internet. In fact, nearly half of all retirement applications were filed online last year, and the number continues to grow, it says.

Still, many older Americans either don't have access to the Internet or are uncomfortable using it, especially for something as sensitive as their Social Security benefits and all the talk of identity theft. So, they are being forced into longer waits for a personal appointment or even someone to answer a phone.

Last year, for example, 43 percent of those asking for an appointment had to wait more than three weeks, up from just 10 percent the year before. Of those calling the toll-free help line, 14 percent will get an immediate busy signal and those who do get through can expect an average 17-minute wait.

So your best bet to get things accomplished quickly is www.socialsecurity.gov. Otherwise, try the local office at 877-405-0471, the national line at 800-772-1213 or, if you have a hearing problem, 800-325-0778 TTY.

Today's trivia

Where would you find the highest tides in the world?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Hall-of-Fame electee Greg Maddux may have wound up 10th on the list of most career strikeouts with 3,371, but he never fanned Tony Gwynn in 107 faceoffs. "I couldn't strike him out," Maddux reportedly joked once. "When he swung, he didn't miss. And, then, when I did strike him out, he got the call." So Gwynn wound up batting .429 against Maddux with more hits (39) than against any other pitcher. "Why? I hit whatever (he and Tom Glavine) threw me," Gwynn said. "I never tried to ... make something happen instead of just letting it happen. Over and over again, I have seen hitters get themselves out against Maddux and Glavine because they tried to force the issue." For more of the late slugger's analysis on Maddux, see static.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/gwynn_tony/1369978.html

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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