Social Security During COVID: How the Pandemic Hampered Access to Benefits and Strategies for Improving Service Delivery
Senate Committee on Finance
Chairman Wyden, Ranking Member Crapo and members of the Committee, thank you for allowing NTEU to submit its thoughts on methods to improve service delivery at the Social Security Administration. NTEU represents approximately 150,000 federal employees in 34 agencies including 1,900 attorneys and paralegals in the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearings Operations (OHO). The Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) handles appeals of disability claims. OHO strives to issue legally sufficient decisions and award benefits to disabled claimants as early in the process as possible. But in recent years the hearing process has been encumbered by insufficient resources, inadequate staffing, expanding case files, expansive changes in regulations, conflicting operational messages, and escalating internal tensions. There are many features of the process that could be changed to improve service delivery, but NTEU would like to highlight three areas that are important to the employees we represent.
Permanently expand telework. The pandemic has proven, once and for all, the value of a robust telework program in the federal government. Maximum telework policies have protected the health and safety of federal workers around the country, and their families, without sacrificing productivity. Prior to the pandemic, OHO attorneys generally were allowed to telework three or four days per week. Due to the pandemic, employees are currently on mandatory full time telework whenever possible and have reported increase productivity and increased employee satisfaction. NTEU believes telework should be expanded to the maximum extent possible. Post-probationary employees should be required to be in the office no more than one day per pay period and when needed for training or other office activities. We also believe that OHO should consider implementing a full time telework program like the innovative program that has been so successful at the NTEU-represented U.S. Trademark Office. Expanded telework would improve employee productivity and retention as well as offering the potential savings from the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund by reducing the leasing costs of OHO Offices. The pandemic has proven this program works. The Agency should take advantage of that.
Support rural broadband. NTEU strongly supports the Administration’s proposal to expand rural broadband. When the mandatory telework orders were issued due to the pandemic, there were at least fifty OHO employees’ with work that was perfectly portable who lacked satisfactory broadband in the rural area in which they lived to actually work remotely. Both workers and communities in rural America would benefit from more federal and private sector employees being free to work remotely in rural areas and we hope Congress will support the rapid expansion of rural broadband to help make this a reality.
Public service student loan forgiveness. The Attorney-Advisors at OHO are generally a young workforce and the unacceptable level of turnover has negatively impacted the ability of the office to fully perform its function. Our members believe an important tool for recruiting and retaining the best employees would be to cancel the student loan debt of employees who have completed a decade or more of public service. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program was created to ease the burden of student loan debt for a generation of those who have chosen careers in public service. But after years of scandal and allegations of widespread mismanagement, it is clear to NTEU that the federal government has fundamentally failed to deliver on this promise. Since 2017, when the first public service workers became eligible for debt cancellation, 98 percent of those who applied for PSLF have been rejected. And that is just the tip of the iceberg — for every borrower who has served for a decade and been rejected for PSLF, tens of thousands have been knocked off track or never had the opportunity to apply for relief. Ensuring this program works for public servants is vital to recruiting and retaining qualified employees at OHO and across the federal government and we look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to ensure this benefit is available for employees.
I appreciate this opportunity to present NTEU’s views.