Now is the summer of our discontent with Social Security’s customer service – and fall and winter could be worse.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) stumbled this month when it added a mandatory extra layer of website log-on security requiring customers to receive a code via text message. But the agency’s customer service problems go much further than just text messages.
The technology snafu started when the SSA added “multifactor authentication” to log on to MySSA customer accounts. It was a well-intentioned move to satisfy an executive order by U.S. President Barack Obama that federal agencies take steps to protect sensitive financial data.
But critics pointed out that many older Americans do not use text messaging, and customers at one major mobile phone service – Verizon – inexplicably found themselves unable to use the new security layer.
Two weeks later, the SSA backpedaled, admitting that the authentication process had restricted site access for some customers and saying it will look for other ways to bolster its online security. For now, account holders can log on with a username and password.
But the texting misstep is part of a broader customer service challenge the SSA faces.
Budget cutting has handcuffed the agency’s capacity to serve the public at a time when customer demand is rising. Baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.
Yet after adjusting for inflation, the SSA’s core budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The cuts stem mainly from the 2011 Budget Control Act, better known as the sequestration law, which ended the debt ceiling crisis that threatened to shut down the government.
CBPP found that the average caller to the SSA’s toll-free line now waits more than 15 minutes, and nearly 10 percent of callers receive busy signals. Since 2010, more than 60 field offices and 533 mobile offices have been closed, and hours at remaining offices have been cut. Backlogs on hearings for disability insurance applications are at an all-time high, with more than 1 million applications awaiting processing, the report found.