Ellen Barfield lives five blocks from the North Baltimore Social Security Office. When she heard the Trump administration was closing it down and AFGE was holding a rally to protest the closure, she got on her bike and joined fellow retirees and allies in front of the Rotunda Mall where the Social Security office is located the morning of June 19, three days before the office was scheduled to close.
Under the scorching sun that beat down on her and other protesters, Barfield stood behind a stack of white boxes that served as a podium, a mega phone in one hand, a “Hands off Our Benefits” sign in the other.
She told the crowd and TV camera crew how her husband passed away two years ago and how she would be receiving his benefits when she was old enough. When she visited this Social Security office two years ago, she remembered how big it was – there were more than 15 employees and you could be in there as long as you’d like to get the benefits you earned. Today, as it prepared to close, it had shrunk to only two or three service windows. People would have to wait outside of the office for hours for services as it can only serve a few people at a time. She sympathizes with the workers who are doing the best they can with the limited resources they have. But Ellen came to a conclusion.
“They want to dissuade people from filing for their benefits,” she said. “And that’s disgusting.”
Ellen’s sentiments were echoed by other protesters who were upset that the Social Security Administration has closed more than 70 Social Security offices since 2010 when more than 10,000 baby boomers retire every day.
Problems With Telling Seniors to File for Benefits Online
SSA itself admitted that a wave of baby boomer retirements is a problem. But instead of opening more offices to meet the higher demand, the administration is closing them down. They want seniors and people with disabilities to file for benefits online and wade through all the rules and regulations themselves without human beings to guide and give them advice.
“Not everyone who is 65 is online,” said retiree Susan Flashman. “People need services.”
The results of pushing seniors to file for benefits online? A lot of mistakes that translate into a loss of thousands of dollars in benefits they’ve earned. When they file for disability benefits online and don't provide enough information, their claims could be denied. And when they appeal, they have to wait 800 days because SSA doesn’t have enough staff to conduct a hearing and write decisions, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE Social Security Council 220 that represents 28,000 SSA employees nationwide.
Skwierczynski took issue with SSA’s excuse for closings of SSA offices, a recent one being a lack of space. They can’t find space for this tiny office? “That’s a lie,” he said.
This North Baltimore office in the Rotunda Mall sits right next to senior apartment complexes, and even though the mall itself is trying to be upscale, it is surrounded by rowhouses with chipped paint in an unmistakably working-class neighborhood.
“We need offices like this to stay open,” Skwierczynski told the protesters.
AFGE National Vice President for District 4 Dan Doyle shared a personal story about his brother who was confined to a wheelchair. Had he lived in one of these senior apartment buildings and had to go to a different SSA office so far away, he wouldn’t be able to do it. He wondered how many people like his brother would actually have to do it now that this SSA office would be closed.
“This is wrong and must stop,” he said.
Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, expressed dismay at the idea that 13,000 people that this office serves a year would have to find their own way to another SSA office in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. And good luck trying to call SSA’s 1-800 number. When he called the number at the beginning of a congressional hearing, he was still on hold after he finished his testimony. But his trouble was minor compared to others.
“People die waiting for their benefits,” he said.
American People Support Social Security
Poll after poll shows that the American public overwhelmingly supports expanding Social Security.
“The American people are not divided on this,” said Social Security Works President Nancy Altman reminded people. “We are outraged that they are making it as hard as possible to claim benefits. We are the wealthiest country in the world, and these are earned benefits.”
Also speaking at the rally were representative from Sen. Ben Cardin's office Renee Cohen, Metropolitan Baltimore Council, AFL-CIO, President Jermaine Jones, AFGE National Secretary Treasurer Joseph Flynn, and AFGE Local 1923 Vice President Mary Camper.