The Social Security Administration (SSA) has imposed a hiring freeze on its already understaffed workforce, including the auditors who identify and correct the agency’s errors and make sure it pays the right people the right amount.
The hiring freeze, implemented July 31, has made it increasingly difficult for auditors in the Office of Analytics, Oversight, and Review (OARO) to do their jobs and meet legal and congressional obligations. Critics are wondering if this is the administration’s backdoor effort to get rid of experts, just like it did at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The stress and the work is so demanding. We really used to be at about 1,400 employees nationwide, now we’re down to maybe 1,000 nationwide,” said Earl Tucker, president of AFGE Council 224. “We’re short-staffed as it is, and the workloads are getting bigger. People just get fed up and they leave.”
Tucker said his small component has already lost over 70 employees this fiscal year as of July 31. With fewer people to do the work, the public will suffer, as will the few remaining employees left to accomplish their mission.
The auditors are front-line workers who perform difficult tasks needed to keep operations running effectively and efficiently. They routinely engage with SSA beneficiaries, often redeveloping cases from the beginning to the end to confirm that recipients are receiving the proper funds. They conduct quality reviews of all SSA programs, including the retirement, disability, and Supplemental Security Income programs.
They must review fully half of all disability cases generated by individual states before those payments are made to the beneficiaries, which means reviewing over 50,000 cases per year. They put together annual reports to Congress that could now be delayed due to the limited staffing.
The problem is about to get worse due to the new hiring freeze.
In Dallas, for example, office administrators have announced they are increasing the number of case assignments by 25%, meaning they will be assigning staff 10 new disability cases per day, up from eight currently. Thoroughly reviewing one case can take a day alone to complete.
Auditors must sign their names when they complete their cases, affirming that they have thoroughly reviewed the evidence and that the benefits have been correctly applied. Tucker worries that they will no longer be telling the truth.
“When we’re pushing people to produce more, to produce more, they’re really not allowing people enough time to do quality work. What you’re going to find is, they’re just going to sign it and move on.”
And that will result in people being approved for benefits that they should not be receiving.
“They’re going to find out people are overpaid, but we’ll never get that money back because it was our fault that we did not do the quality review we should have done before they were triggered for payment,” he added. “Our people are under tremendous stress right now simply because we don’t have enough employees to perform the work.”
The council has drafted a letter to the SSA commissioner saying the commissioner made a mistake by not exempting SSA auditors from the hiring freeze. It may have been a case of newly appointed agency leaders not having a full understanding of the type of work the auditors do.
The council represents about 700 of the 1,000 employees in OARO located in all 10 regional SSA offices as well as other major cities, mostly at SSA payment centers and other large federal installations.