Amid budget cutbacks, Social Security says it needs 11,000 new workers

August 09, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- At a time when the buzzword in Washington is "downsizing," the Social Security Administration has told Congress that it will take the equivalent of 11,000 employees to handle a new annual statement of earnings and projected retirement benefits that most workers will begin receiving in six years.

As it begins to reduce its management positions by 1,000, the Woodlawn agency projects it will need a staffing increase of 25 percent or more to handle its current workload and the new earnings and benefits statements by the year 2000.

Much of the additional staffing would be needed to handle the agency's mushrooming disability claims. By the end of next month, Social Security expects to have a backlog of 700,000 disability applications. An additional 500,000 claims are backed up at the appeals level.

With 65,000 workers -- 14,200 of them in the Baltimore area -- Social Security touches the lives of most Americans. It sends checks to 42 million retired and disabled people monthly, and collects payroll taxes from 132 million wage earners and their employers.

Congress is expected to give final approval this week to a bill that would remove the agency from the Department of Health and Human Services, making it an independent organization.

The earnings and benefits statements that the agency will mail beginning in 2000 have been available on request for six years. For each individual, they detail the amounts paid into the Social Security trust fund, year by year, and the amount that person can expect to collect upon retiring. The agency now mails 3 million to 4 million of the statements annually.

Beginning next year, Social Security will be required to send the statements annually to all workers over age 60 who are not collecting retirement benefits. Then, in 2000, the statements must go every year to all workers over age 25, an estimated 123 million people. The work will cost the agency $300 million to $350 million a year, Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, told Congress in testimony on the agency's budget.

The actual production and mailing of the statements will be automated, said Phil Gambino, the agency spokesman. Most of the added work will involve responding to inquiries and correcting errors recipients find.

Ms. Chater indicated that the 11,000 workers will be required annually, but agency officials hope the staffing requirement will decline after the first wave of statements generates a flood of calls and complaints about errors.

In a budget-related report to Capitol Hill, Social Security has told Congress that it expects to handle the added work -- and other aspects of its increasing workload -- through automation and "re-engineering."

"Clearly," says the report, "fiscal and personnel constraints preclude a strategy of dealing with increased workloads through additional hiring.

"But, without some action, SSA's service to the public will collapse. Thus, SSA has no choice but to make radical changes so that our processes do not require an infusion of human resources."

The agency is counting on dealing with the problem through "re-engineering" -- streamlining the way it does things -- and a $1.1 billion program to replace its "aging network of computer terminals . . . [which] have reached the end of their useful lives."

The Reagan administration cut the Social Security work force by 25 percent with the idea of replacing their work with automation. The effort was subsequently judged a failure in many ways. It included the creation of an 800 phone number that produced as many problems as it solved.

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