November 18, 2019
Congressional leaders have agreed to pass a short-term funding bill to keep the government running until Dec. 20 to avoid a government shutdown.
The administration and Congress recently gave massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations, benefiting the wealthiest 1%. And now they’re trying to balance the budget on the backs of retirees and people with disabilities.
Retirees and good government groups on May 3 joined AFGE in protesting the administration’s plan to close Social Security offices in Arlington, VA, and Baltimore, MD, this year. Protesters gathered in front of the SSA Arlington office to demand that SSA keep all SSA offices open and stop the onslaught of Social Security, the most popular government program that keeps more than 22 million Americans out of poverty.
As 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, the administration needs to increase – not decrease – access to their earned benefits.
“These are benefits we have earned. These are benefits we have paid for,” said Social Security Works President Nancy Altman. “We shouldn’t just not be closing offices – we should be opening them.”
Social Security recipient Julian Blair was not having it either. “How can you be so stupid? How can you keep people away by closing this office? We paid for this service.”
“I don't drive anymore,” said Social Security recipient Cecile Heatley. “It would be very difficult to get to the Social Security office in Alexandria if the one in Arlington is closed.”
Since 2010, SSA has closed 71 field offices. The Arlington and Baltimore North locations are slated for closure in June. According to SSA, the reason for both closings is GSA’s inability to secure space in the service area. A similar reason was given when they closed down the Mitchell St. office in Milwaukee earlier this year and the Chicago Near Southwest office last year. But according to a study SSA commissioned a contractor to do on the impact of office consolidations, they found that closing offices saves the agency money by reducing the number of claims filed with greater savings occurring when the closed offices happen to be in lower income areas. The majority of people in the Chicago Near Southwest office service area are African American and Hispanic while the Mitchell St. office was in a Latino neighborhood.
We must keep the Arlington office (and others) open
The SSA office in Arlington is the only office serving the needs of Arlington’s residents. Despite a 20% commercial vacancy rate in Arlington, SSA claims it cannot locate new space and has no plans to try to provide in-person services to Arlington’s residents.
The next closest field office is located on Edsall Road in Alexandria and already services a large population in Alexandria and much of Fairfax. It’s also not readily accessible to public transportation as it’s more than one mile to the closest metro station. For the elderly and those with disabilities, the Arlington SSA office is a necessity.
SSA has been pushing seniors to apply for benefits online, but field offices serve the needs of beneficiaries in ways that computers simply cannot.
“Those with the most complicated cases and greatest need often are most benefited by in-person services,” noted Kevin Saucedo-Broach, a representative from VA House Delegate Alfonzo Lopez’s office.
“This office is being closed for bogus reasons,” said AFGE Social Security Council 220 President Witold Skwierczynski. “Internet is not the answer. The American public wants face to face services”
“Make no mistake, AFGE and the 700,000 members it represents, and the entire AFL-CIO will fight night and day to keep every Social Security office open for the American people!” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. told the crowd.
AFGE National Vice President for District 4 Dan Doyle pointed out that a systemic understaffing makes it easier to close these offices.
Indeed, since 2010, SSA has endured deep budget cuts that have annihilated SSA’s once proud achievement of providing world class service. As a result of these budget cuts, SSA field offices have lost more than 3,500 employees. SSA has imposed hiring freezes, closed more than 70 offices and all 533 contact stations across the country, and reduced office hours to the public.
The American people have been paying the price for this misguided policy as underfunding and staff cuts mean long wait times with people being denied services. Appointments to file for claims of retirement, disability and/or survivor benefits continue to take up to 60 days. Callers to SSA’s 800 number wait an average of 28 minutes. Many callers complain of waiting more than two hours. More than 39.5 million of the callers to SSA’s 800 number hang up in automation without selecting an application or hang-up while awaiting agent service. Initial disability claims and reconsideration decisions take 3-6 months for each process, while hearing appeal decisions now take more than 20 months.
In addition, historic level of backlogs exist throughout the agency. Most notably is the backlog at Social Security’s payment service centers, which exceeds 4 million cases. The backlog of hearing appeals has reached nearly 1.1 million, resulting in waits of almost two years for a decision.
Service delays cause difficulties for our most vulnerable citizens, including veterans, who are at increased risk of both homelessness and disability. As a result of the long wait times, more than 2.1 million visitors left without assistance. Appointment delays for those who just lost a loved one often cause an undue hardship for those who desperately wait for income replacement.
SSA is closing offices even though Congress in the 2018 omnibus spending bill directed that SSA should not close any more offices until the Inspector General has issued its report on the impact of office closures.
Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey pledged to leverage all the resources available to keep the office open in Arlington.
“This serves as an essential service to the community,” he said. “To close this office is poor business management by SSA.”
Alliance for Retired Americans Executive Director Richard Fiesta said he’s proud to stand with AFGE and others in our fight to keep Social Security offices open.
“Social Security is the people's program, and we need people to run the program,” he said.
In an open letter to SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul published in the Baltimore Sun, AFGE Council 220 called on the agency to reopen the labor-management contract and treat workers with respect.
AFGE’s communications team has won four labor media awards in the 2019 International Labor Communications Association’s Labor Media Contest!