Visitors to SSA field offices are waiting longer for service, but the agency says it is taking steps to modernize and improve service delivery, according to a recent OIG audit report.
The average wait time for service at an SSA field office was about 25 minutes in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, according to the agency; that is up from about 19 minutes in FY2010. Also, since FY2010, wait times have increased in all 10 SSA regions.
While the average wait time has increased, more visitors are also dealing with longer waits, overall (see chart below). Specifically, in FY2010, about 2.3 million field office visitors waited for more than an hour for service. In each year from FY2013 through FY2017, more than 4 million visitors waited for more than an hour, including more than 5 million in FY2014.
Despite the increases, SSA continues to serve more than 40 million customers a year—including 42 million in FY2017—at about 1,220 field offices across the country. To learn more about the factors that affect customer wait times, our auditors recently interviewed SSA management staff and reviewed various field offices.
Staffing, Workloads, and Operating Hours
A three-year hiring freeze from 2010 through 2013, due to lower-than-requested funding, affected SSA’s field office staffing level and, as a result, customer wait times. During the hiring freeze, SSA lost knowledgeable and experienced employees, resulting in a field office staffing decrease from about 29,000 in 2010 to about 26,000 in 2013. SSA added new employees in 2014; however, as of 2017, the agency still had not returned to its 2010 staffing level.
Complex workloads also affect customer service, due to a large amount of incoming requests related to Social Security number (SSN) issues and disability applications. In 2016, SSA employees processed millions of SSN applications and reported that some disability claims take an average of 60 to 90 minutes to complete. Other workloads that affected employees’ ability to serve in-office customers included reviewing disability claims, answering telephone calls, and updating beneficiary records.
SSA also noted that limited funding contributed to the decision to close field offices 30 minutes earlier every day in 2011, and closing offices at noon on Wednesdays in 2013. SSA started opening field offices one hour earlier each day of the week except Wednesdays in 2015, but the public has still experienced an overall decrease in service hours.
SSA reported several strategies to improve customer service; for example, promotion of online electronic services, offering self-help personal computers at field offices, work-sharing among employees, approving employee overtime, and sharing best practices among field offices.
In 2017, SSA also published its Information Technology Modernization Plan to address public service related to OIG recommendations; the plan is still in the early stages and not expected to be implemented until 2022 or later.
For more information, you can read the full OIG audit report, Customer Wait Times in SSA’s Field Offices.