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Finance Committee Republicans Urge Reopening of SSA Field Offices

WASHINGTON – Senator Lankford (R-OK) joined Senators Tim Scott (R-SC), ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, and other Republican members of the aging and finance committees in sending a letter urging Acting Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi to immediately reopen SSA’s field offices to the public. 

“Social Security is a bedrock of our nation’s social safety net, especially for our nation’s seniors aged 62 or older who comprise more than four-fifths of all Social Security beneficiaries… On March 17, 2020, the Social Security Administration (SSA) suspended in-person services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This suspension created a disruption to the millions of new applicants and beneficiaries receiving Social Security benefits,” the Senators wrote. 

“On behalf of the nearly 70 million Americans who receive benefits from SSA, we reiterate the need to reopen the field offices as quickly as possible. Our nation’s seniors and beneficiaries of SSA programs deserve no less.”

Nearly 21 months ago, the SSA suspended in-person services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the SSA reportedly submitted its reentry plan to the Office of Management and Budget in July of 2021, it has still failed to fully reopen its offices to the public. This has resulted in disruptions to the millions of applicants and beneficiaries receiving Social Security benefits, including:

  • Challenges for individuals, especially seniors in rural areas, who do not have reliable telephone or internet access;
  • A reduction in Supplemental Security Income awards and disability benefit approvals; and
  • Mail backlogs and delays in providing benefit payments.

 The full text of the letter is below and HERE.

Dear Acting Commissioner Kijakazi: 

Social Security is a bedrock of our nation’s social safety net, especially for our nation’s seniorsaged 62 or older who comprise more than four-fifths of all Social Security beneficiaries.1 In 2019, 43 million individuals received services from 1,230 SSA field offices.2 On March 17, 2020, the Social Security Administration (SSA) suspended in-person services because of the COVID-19pandemic.3 This suspension created a disruption to the millions of new applicants and beneficiaries receiving Social Security benefits. As members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and the Committee on Finance, we urge SSA to reopen its field offices as expeditiouslyas possible. 

SSA has slowly moved to limited, in-person appointments and now allows for an ExpressInterview option for certain beneficiaries. However, these steps do not fully address the needs of individuals who require additional time to speak with an SSA employee. This is a challenge for many individuals, especially seniors in rural areas, who do not have reliable telephone orinternet access. Of additional concern is the impact the closed field offices have on individuals who qualify for benefits but are discouraged from applying for them. Supplemental Security Income awards are down, as are disability benefit approvals, likely also a reflection of SSA’s lack of reopening plans.

We are also troubled about SSA’s lack of proper mail controls policies. A July 2021 interim reportissued by the SSA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) identified two key concerns regarding its policies and oversight of its mail controls. The first concern is that SSA does not have performance metrics in place nor does it maintain information on the volume of incoming,outgoing or pending mail. This lack of operational data results in an inability to have properstaffing levels to ensure mail received is processed in a timely manner. For example, one officeidentified by the OIG had more than 9,000 unprocessed original documents it had received as early as November 2020. These included documents that were necessary to establishindividuals’ eligibility for benefit payments. 

Another situation raised by the OIG is that SSA lacks comprehensive policies and procedures totrack and return original documents, including driver’s licenses, birth certificates and passports. The SSA requires these documents to determine a person’s eligibility for benefits or to receive a Social Security card. A lack of comprehensive policies and procedures increases the possibility of losing important and personally identifiable documents and of SSA being unable to return the documents to their rightful owner. This also raises serious privacy and identify theftconcerns.

 These failures reinforce the necessity for a prompt return to in-person services as quickly aspossible. A press report stated SSA submitted its reentry plan to 0MB on July 26, 2021.5 A morerecent press report indicated that SSA cited a “new reentry plan” that would begin returningemployees to offices in January.6 We are concerned the agency has not yet released its final reentry plan publicly, and that this plan first appeared in the press and was only provided to SSA union representatives before being shared with Congressional stakeholders. Reopening the field offices should be a top priority in light of President Biden’s executive order requiring federal workers and contractors to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the availability of three Foodand Drug Administration-approved vaccines, and SSA’s mandate that all employees be fully vaccinated by November 22.

In light of these issues and SSA’s delay in announcing its plans to the public and Congress toreopen its field offices, we request an un-redacted copy of the current SSA reentry plan. We further request a response in writing to the following questions no later than December 10,2021:

1.      Did SSA submit its reentry plan to 0MB on July 26, 2021?

2.      Did this plan include policies for a return to in-office work for all SSA employees? If not,when does SSA expect the workforce to return to 100 percent in-office work on a full-time basis?

3.      Has SSA leadership met with the American Federation of Government Employeesregarding its reentry plan?

4.       What roles has the American Federation of Government Employees played in SSA’sreturn-to-work policy?

5.       Describe all areas of any SSA return-to-work policies that SSA believes it is required tocollectively bargain, and identify whether the bargaining has concluded or, if not, thetimeline for completion.

6.       In light of the OIG interim report regarding SSA’s deficits in its mail processing, whatconcrete steps is leadership taking to ensure the two key areas of concern are addressed in a timely manner?

7.       If SSA has not developed this information, what is the timeline for it to address the OIG’sconcerns?

8.       What steps is SSA taking to protect the original documents received from individualsapplying for benefits?

9.       What safeguards are in place to address concerns about lost items given the personallyidentifiable nature of those documents?

10.  Does SSA plan to return to 100 percent of its pre-COVID-19 staffing levels? If so, what isthe timeline for doing so? If not, what is its justification for failing to do so?

11.  What is the current level of compliance among SSA employees regarding PresidentBiden’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate? What is the agency’s plan for dealing withemployees who refuse to get the vaccine and fail to present legitimate cause to refuse thevaccine?

We request the transmission of this information to Nichole Wilson of Senate Aging Committeestaff at nichole.wilson@aging.senate.gov, and to Lincoln Foran of Senate Finance Committeestaff at Lincoln.foran@finance.senate.gov, by December 10, 2021. On behalf of the nearly 70million Americans who receive benefits from SSA, we reiterate the need to reopen the field offices as quickly as possible. Our nation’s seniors and beneficiaries of SSA programs deserveno less. We thank you for your prompt attention to these important questions.