WASHINGTON – The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been eyeing a plan that would radically transform the agency’s current structure, eliminating the face-to-face customer service that the 43 million Americans who annually visit their SSA field offices have traditionally received.
The report, titled “Long-Term Strategic Vision and Vision Elements for the Social Security Administration,” or Vision 2025 for short, was produced (under an SSA contract) by SSA contractor National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). The plan’s draft introduction was obtained by the American Federation of Government Employees, a national union representing 28,000 SSA field office employees across the country.
The plan calls for several radical changes that would drastically alter the proven customer service system on which low and middle-income, disabled and senior Americans have relied for decades. The internet would become the exclusive channel for customer service, automation of the 800 number phone line would increase, and in-person service would be virtually eliminated. Were SSA to adopt the changes wholesale, it would result in the closure of 1,250 field offices and the consequent layoff of the 30,000 plus employees who work in field offices.
“Americans are going to be cheated out of what they deserve just for SSA to save a buck” said AFGE SSA Council President Witold Skwierczynski. “People rely on trained staff to understand the complex SSA system, their eligibility and benefit options. Under Vision 2025 this level of customer service will be a thing of the past. Every Social Security beneficiary deserves the personal assistance they have paid for their entire lives.”
Skwierczynski added that, according to SSA employee surveys, many beneficiaries who file on the internet make decisions that could lead to the permanent loss of benefits – something that a trained employee would help them avoid.
The flaws with this approach are obvious. More than 40 percent of seniors do not use the internet at all. Among those that do, internet penetration is lower than that of younger generations. Even those who are proficient with the internet may encounter serious issues with the MySSA website. And if the Vision 2025 comes true, those who abandon the website in an attempt to contact a trained staff member will only find an automated answering service at the 800 phone number.
AFGE contends that Americans should have the right to select the method they want to use to file for benefits, whether it’s face-to-face, by telephone or via the internet.
“The customer service changes that SSA is considering will critically wound communities across the country,” said Skwierczynski. “This plan would be the end of Social Security as we know it. No one asked for this plan. These benefits belong to all Americans; not us, NAPA, or SSA, but the beneficiaries of Social Security. Our mission is to maintain the level of benefits and service they have earned.”
SSA is currently seeking input from employees on the Vision 2025 report in an internal survey closing Friday, May 2.