... but Social Security is spared

February 04, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Instead of being forced to trim 1,000 jobs, the Social Security Administration has been given the go-ahead to add about 400 employees by the end of next year, say administration officials.

The additional employees will be used to trim the backlog of disability claims. The reported increase comes at a time when the Clinton administration is looking to cut 100,000 federal jobs in the budget it will send to Congress next week.

The administration sources yesterday quoted Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, as saying that she had to "go to the mat" to prevent the administration from eliminating 1,000 agency jobs at Woodlawn-based Social Security, the largest agency under her purview.

The Office of Management and Budget granted Social Security a waiver from the cutback that will leave it with a little more than 65,200 employees at the end of the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1, some 1,400 more than it otherwise would have. Just over 14,000 of those employees are in the Baltimore area. All of the new workers will be hired in field offices, perhaps including some in Baltimore-area field offices, officials said. But none of the new employees will work at the headquarters in Woodlawn.

Last year, the backlog of disability claims stood at 700,000 and threatened to go over 1 million this year. Officials maintained yesterday that it has been trimmed to 552,000 but that it is expected to rise again to 720,000.

Claimants now wait more than four months for a decision, and the wait can stretch to a year if they appeal an adverse ruling.

Ms. Shalala's effort to get the mammoth agency exempted from personnel cuts came at a time when Congress, trying to give the Social Security Administration more clout and visibility, is threatening to make it an independent agency. The administration is trying to sidetrack the bill.

Democratic Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. of Indiana, chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee, said he found it a "colossal coincidence" that Ms. Shalala, criticized in the past for a lack of interest in the agency, had "fought hard," in her words, to preserve jobs at a time when Congress might take Social Security away from her.

The House has twice passed legislation making Social Security an independent agency, but the legislation never got out of the Senate. The bill is being pushed by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which sent the independent-agency legislation to the Senate late last year.

If the Senate passes the bill, Mr. Jacobs said, he will immediately push for action in the House.

Mr. Jacobs welcomed the administration's decision to allow new hiring, saying it was "good news to the Social Security taxpayers who are paying not only for disability benefits but also for the right to receive those benefits before they die."

But he complained that there is no justification for keeping agency spending under the same budget caps that limit most federal government spending because Social Security expenses are covered by its huge trust fund, not the general tax funds that finance most agencies. The agency could comfortably operate on 1.5 percent of the trust fund, he said.

In a prepared statement, Ms. Shalala said she "fought hard to provide additional personnel to the Social Security Administration."

She said that Social Security was "often poorly treated" in Reagan administration budgets but that the Clinton budget to be unveiled next week "reflects a significant, continued commitment" to the agency. Officials said the Social Security budget will rise by the largest amount in a decade.

Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security administrator, lavishly praised Ms. Shalala in a prepared statement, saying "it would have been impossible to have secured" the exemption from the personnel cut "without her personal assistance and leadership."

Social Security lost one-fifth of its work force as part of a Reagan administration effort to automate its operations, an effort that is widely regarded as a failure. An administration official said that Ms. Shalala, seeking to avert a cut in Social Security personnel, argued that the agency was still reeling from those personnel cuts while facing the growing disability caseload and preparing to take on substantial new work. She argued that it could not afford to take another job reduction.

With the aging baby boom generation promising to add to the 45 million people who now receive a monthly check, Social Security also is preparing to send, beginning in 1995 on a phased basis, earnings and benefits-estimate statements each year to the 135 million workers who pay Social Security taxes, a move that is expected to require thousands of additional employees.

The agency is also in the midst of a "re-engineering" that includes a complete redesign of the disability claims process . Process aimed at streamling it and, possibly, closing or shifting of some of its 1,300 field offices.

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