Customer service performance has long been a topic of discussion for the Social Security Administration (SSA). Even before offices were closed to the public at the beginning of the pandemic for the safety of its employees and the vulnerable populations they serve, customer service levels often fluctuated. Individuals unable to secure an appointment lined up outside several hours before their local field office opened, hoping they could be seen as a walk-in that day. For claimants lucky enough to secure an appointment, it would often be several weeks before they would be seen. After two years of closure, Social Security offices reopened to the public in April 2022. Unfortunately, customer service levels have not improved, with many troubling accusations appearing over recent months, Congress took notice and has requested action.
On August 16, 2022, United States Representatives Richard E. Neal and Kevin Brady, the Chair and Ranking Member of the United States House and Ways Committee, wrote to Acting Social Security Commissioner Dr. Kilolo Kijazki urging her to take “action to address the safety needs of individuals who are seeking [Social Security] field office services.” Due to precautions put in place as a result of COVID-19, many individuals requiring in-person services and assistance faced dangerous situations, including sleeping outside overnight or waiting for hours in 100-degree heat.
Acting Commissioner Dr. Kijazki responded two weeks later, addressing the questions and concerns laid out by Chairman Neal and Ranking Member Brady laid out in four key areas.
Claimant safety procedures
Social Security has always worked to service the public in the most timely and effective way possible. Unfortunately, due to individual circumstances and pandemic-related challenges, timely and effective service delivery is not always achieved with long wait times, packed waiting rooms, or individuals waiting outside in the elements for extended periods. Since reopening field offices Social Security has made concerted efforts to try to minimize these occurrences, including:
- Triaging individuals that can be satisfied by a quick interview or scheduled for a future appointment.
- Providing documentation and evidence drop boxes for individuals who do not wish to wait.
- Assigning caseloads to offices that tend to have less walk-in and scheduled appointment traffic.
- Ensuring those waiting in line or in-office have all the necessary documents needed to proceed with their business.
In addition, individuals who need to wait outside have access to bathroom and water foundation facilities, and where possible, canopies and fans have been added to ease any difficulties associated with waiting outside. Social Security is also expanding its use of mobile check-in features, which allow individuals with an appointment to wait in their vehicles or other spaces and are notified when Social Security is ready to take them.
Access to Social Security services
One of the biggest misconceptions about Social Security is that all business must be taken care of in the office when most individuals do not need to go into an office at all. When offices were closed to the public, millions of Americans were able to access their needed services online or over the phone. Using Social Security online allows individuals to apply for benefits, request a new or replacement Social Security card, and review their earnings history. Creating a my Social Security account provides claimants with even further options, including updating direct deposit information, changing their mailing address, and printing proof of their benefits. It is important to know that if a claimant cannot find their Social Security card, they may not need a physical replacement. In many cases, an individual will only need their Social Security number and not a physical card.
Claimant wait times
Social Security does not measure wait times for individuals who had been waiting outside before the office opens, so it is impossible to know truly how long many individuals were waiting outside. Since reopening in April approximately 216 separate offices had multiple instances of at least 40 individuals waiting when the offices open at 9:00 AM local time. The numbers often significantly drop by the afternoon, even in the offices with a larger number of visitors.
COVID-19 safety policy and protocols
On September 30, 2022, Social Security issued an updated workplace safety plan to help plan for a larger return-to-office of employees, in-office meetings, and a return of public visitors. This includes a plan for physical distancing, the use of face masks, larger availability of hand sanitizer, and an updated air filtration system.
As with other businesses and organizations worldwide, the Social Security Administration is working to determine the best course of action for its employees and its customers in a “post-pandemic” world. As the number of COVID-19 infections plateaued in some areas but remained high in others, the one-size fits all approach did not necessarily satisfy the needs of all offices across the United States. Under the leadership of the Acting Commissioner, the Social Security Administration has made significant strides toward improving its customer service and claimant safety, but there are still many steps left to take.
At Brown & Brown Absence Services Group, we are encouraged by the Acting Commissioner’s willingness to address the concerns raised by members of Congress and respond to the issues brought forth. We remain hopeful that the Social Security Administration will continue to advance meaningful change and we will continue to use our voice in the marketplace to help support our claimants as they seek the benefits to which they are entitled.