For this phone problem, prisoners may be answer Social Security weighing inmate help

November 04, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Struggling to get control of its toll-free phone system, the Social Security Administration may turn to federal inmates for help.

With 80 million calls expected this year and many Americans unable to get through, the huge federal agency with headquarters in Woodlawn is considering contracting some telephone work -- although not direct contact with the public -- to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, a spokesman confirmed yesterday. The inmates would handle application requests for benefits statements and new Social Security cards.

"I'm flabbergasted," said a Capitol Hill aide who handles Social Security issues.

"If this is true, it's unbelievable," said Witold Skwierczynski, a Chicago official of the union that represents most Social Security employees. "If it weren't a serious matter, it would be funny."

The proposal surfaced Friday at a meeting of officials from Social Security and the American Federation of Government Employees New York. Two union officials said that Alex W. Bussey, an assistant regional commissioner, told them that a contract with the Bureau of Prisons was part of a plan being considered for dealing with the agency's phone problems.

Mr. Bussey did not respond to repeated phone messages over two days, but Phil Gambino, a spokesman in Woodlawn, confirmed that the agency is considering the proposal. He called it innovative rather than crazy.

"From a privacy standpoint, no one would have access to any of our records," Mr. Gambino said. "No confidential Social Security records would be available" to a prisoner.

Social Security's nationwide 800 telephone system has been a problem since its inception in 1988. During the mid-1980s, the agency reduced its work force by 20 percent, vowing to use automation to take up the slack. Among other things, it established the nationwide telephone service and virtually eliminated telephone access to local offices.

Gradually, under congressional pressure, it has restored telephone access to local offices, but the 800 system is still overburdened.

An agency audit released early this year found that Social Security spent $11.5 million in 1991 just to put people on hold. That didn't even count the people who could not get through because the line was busy.

In fiscal 1992, the agency got 75 million calls on the 800 number -- including 20 million in which the caller got a busy signal or was put on hold, according to Mr. Gambino.

A survey by the American Association of Retired Persons of callers to the 800 number found that "only 51 percent reported reaching a Social Security employee who assisted them on the first call. Fourteen percent said that it took two calls, and 24 percent said that it took three calls or more."

Now, Vice President Al Gore's proposal for "reinventing government" is promising that callers to the 800 number will get an answer on the first try. Shirley Sears Chater, the new Social Security commissioner, repeated that pledge at a Capitol Hill hearing last week.

The agency has 3,400 employees who work full-time on the system and another 650 who help out at peak periods. It would take another 4,000 employees working on the system during the half-dozen busiest days of the year to fulfill the agency goal, Mr. Gambino said.

Given President Clinton's promise to reduce the federal work force by 252,000 employees and other pressures for additional Social Security workers, new hiring for the phone system is considered unlikely.

So the agency is looking for other ways to cope with the calls, including increasing the use of automated answering systems and contracting work to the federal prison system or a private company. Contracting the work out would be cheaper, particularly if federal prisoners were doing it, Mr. Gambino said.

He said that about 18 percent of the calls to the 800 number are requests for the address of the local Social Security office, requests for a new Social Security card, or a request for a personal benefits-earnings statement. The agency could purchase software that would automate the address-request responses and contract out the initial handling of requests for new Social Security cards and benefits statements.

Callers would leave their name and address on a recording. Federal prisoners or employees of a private contractor would transcribe that information and mail an application form, which would have to be sent back to Social Security.

The caller, said Mr. Gambino, would not have to leave a Social Security number, only a name and address.

The agency's search for answers to its phone problem comes at a time when the Bureau of Prisons is looking for ways to keep its growing inmate population busy. Recently, according to Greg Bogdan, a spokesman, the agency approached the Social Security Administration "with a general proposal where inmates could be used in some capacity to do telephone kinds of work."

"This is very, very preliminary," he added.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. of Indiana, who is chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, greeted the news with what an aide described as a "shocked smile."

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