THE INSPECTOR GENERAL
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
HEARING OFFICE PERFORMANCE
By conducting independent and objective audits, evaluations and investigations, we inspire public confidence in the integrity and security of SSA’s programs and operations and protect them against fraud, waste and abuse. We provide timely, useful and reliable information and advice to Administration officials, Congress and the public.
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Conduct and supervise independent and objective audits and investigations relating to agency programs and operations.
Promote economy, effectiveness, and efficiency within the agency.
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Independence to determine what reviews to perform.
Access to all information necessary for the reviews.
Authority to publish findings and recommendations based on the reviews.
We strive for continual improvement in SSA’s programs, operations and management by proactively seeking new ways to prevent and deter fraud, waste and abuse. We commit to integrity and excellence by supporting an environment that provides a valuable public service while encouraging employee development and retention and fostering diversity and innovation.
Date: February 1, 2010 Refer To:
To: The Commissioner
From: Inspector General
Subject: Hearing Office Performance and Staffing (A-12-08-28088)
Our objective was to determine the staffing ratio and combination of staff skills in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review’s (ODAR) hearing offices that maximize hearing office performance.
ODAR administers the hearings and appeals program for the Social Security Administration (SSA). Administrative law judges (ALJ) conduct hearings and issue decisions. The hearing process begins after an applicant for benefits appeals a denial by a disability determination services (DDS).
In performing their duties, ALJs are assisted by decision writers and other support staff. Decision writers draft and write ALJ decisions, screen claims, and, in the case of senior attorney adjudicators, issue favorable decisions. Other support staff conduct initial case screening and preparation, maintain a control system for all hearing office cases, conduct pre-hearing case analysis, develop additional evidence, schedule hearings, and prepare notices.
In March 2009, SSA’s Commissioner testified that about 4.5 staff per ALJ (referred to as the staffing ratio) was necessary to maximize the number of legally sufficient hearings and decisions by ALJs. In this context, “staff” represents both decision writers and other support staff. Moreover, in a Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 memorandum, ODAR’s Deputy Commissioner recommended the Regions hire 1.5 decision writers per ALJ and 2.5 other support staff per ALJ (referred to as the staffing mix ratio), thereby giving additional definition to the Commissioner’s staffing ratio goal.
RESULTS OF REVIEW
In FY 2009, as a result of additional Agency funding, ODAR increased the number of its ALJs to approximately 1,200 (about a 19-percent increase since FY 2000) and the number of its hearing office managers and support staff to about 6,200 (almost a
25-percent increase over the same period). By July 2009, ODAR’s staffing ratio was about 5.1, exceeding the Agency’s national goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ. However, our review of ODAR’s staffing reports found that 42 hearing offices did not meet the national staffing ratio goal, and 7 of those hearing offices had staffing ratios below 4.0. In addition, ODAR’s staffing ratio had not been adjusted to reflect attorney adjudicators who perform two roles—staffing duties when drafting decisions and ALJ duties when issuing fully favorable on-the-record decisions.
In terms of the staffing mix at hearing offices, we found that the hearing offices that met or exceeded the 1.5 decision writers-per-ALJ staffing mix goal had, on average, an almost 9-percent higher productivity rate than those hearing offices with a ratio less than the goal. We did not find similar productivity differences for the other support staffing mix goal. However, 36 hearing offices did not meet the decision writer staffing mix goal, including most of the hearing offices in the San Francisco Region. ODAR managers told us they had difficulty achieving an ideal staffing mix for their offices.
To assist hearing offices in meeting their staffing and workload goals, ODAR is considering the addition of centralized pulling and writing units. These units can supplement staffing and space shortages in hearing offices while providing management with greater flexibility to address unforeseen workload changes. Finally, while the Commissioner has set a staffing ratio goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ, adding the two ODAR staffing mix goals sums to only 4.0 staff per ALJ. At the time of our review, ODAR had not established any clear guidance as to how this 0.5 staff allocation should be used.
HEARING OFFICE STAFFING TRENDS
In FY 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) provided SSA $500 million to process its increasing retirement and disability backlogs. Using ARRA funds, ODAR hired 550 new employees as well as 35 ALJs in FY 2009. In addition to these 585 new hires, ODAR hired 899 support staff and 112 ALJs in the Regions and National Hearing Centers using funds from its FY 2009 appropriation. These new hires assisted hearing offices in each of the 10 Regions. In FY 2008, ODAR hired 190 ALJs and 581 hearing office support staff.
As a result of hiring in recent years, the number of ALJs increased by about 19 percent compared to FY 2000 levels (see Figure 1). ODAR had 1,007 ALJs at the end of FY 2000, but it increased its ALJ corps to approximately 1,200 by July 2009. In addition, since FY 2000, hearing office managers and support staff levels rose to about 6,200—an increase of about 25 percent.
Figure 1: Percent Changes in Number of ALJs and
Hearing Office Managers and Staff
(Since FY 2000-Base Year)
HEARING OFFICE STAFFING RATIOS
As of July 4, 2009, ODAR’s staffing ratio was about 5.1, thereby exceeding the 4.5 goal set by the Commissioner. Since our previous staffing report, ODAR had changed the staffing ratio formula in terms of how it counts managers. In addition, ODAR needed to consider the various roles of attorney adjudicators in the overall staffing ratio.
Current Staffing Ratio
In our previous report on staffing, we recommended that SSA consider developing an ideal staffing ratio for its hearing offices. Since our report was issued, the Commissioner has testified to the Congress about establishing a staffing ratio goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ. As of July 2009, ODAR’s additional hiring has increased the national staffing ratio to about 5.1, thereby exceeding the 4.5 staffing goal. The staffing ratios since FY 2006 are illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1: Staffing Ratios
(as of July 2009)
Fiscal Year National
Note 1: In FY 2008, ODAR hired a larger percentage of ALJs compared to staff, which contributed to the drop in the national staffing ratio.
Using ODAR’s bi-weekly staffing report as of July 4, 2009, we found a total of 42 hearing offices had staffing ratios below the 4.5 staffing ratio goal and, of those, 7 had staffing ratios below 4.0 (see Table 2).
Table 2: Hearing Offices with Staffing Ratios Below 4.0 Staff per ALJ
(as of July 4, 2009)
Hearing Office Region Staffing Ratio
Boston, Massachusetts Boston 3.70
Dover, Delaware Philadelphia 3.80
Washington, DC Philadelphia 3.60
Paducah, Kentucky Atlanta 3.80
Columbus, Ohio Chicago 3.66
Oak Park, Michigan Chicago 3.77
San Jose, California San Francisco 3.95
Hearing Office staffing ratios ranged from a high of 14.2 in the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Hearing Office to a low of 3.6 in the Washington, DC, Hearing Office. According to the Philadelphia Regional Management team, the Region allowed the Johnstown Hearing Office to hire extra support staff because the hearing office had additional space to accommodate the staff. Besides performing its normal function, the Johnstown Hearing Office is being used as a regional “pulling unit” that supports the case preparation duties for other hearing offices in the Region.
Number of Managers
ODAR modified the staffing ratio formula to account for the different numbers of managers among its hearing offices. As discussed in our March 2005 staffing report, ODAR’s staffing ratio formula was calculated by removing three management positions (Hearing Office Director, Hearing Office Systems Administrator, and Administrative Assistant) from each hearing office. However, in many large hearing offices, there are more than three management positions, and in many small hearing offices, there are fewer than three management positions. The prior formula overstated or understated the staffing ratio, depending on the size and composition of managers in the hearing office. In 2005, the formula was modified to reflect the exact number of managers in each office. See Appendix E for a comparison of the staffing ratio at hearing offices using the old and new staffing ratio formula.
Senior Attorney Adjudicators
While senior attorney adjudicators perform staffing duties of drafting decisions and screening cases, they also spend some of their time issuing fully favorable, on-the-record decisions—similar to work performed by ALJs. Hence, the same attorney can act as support staff one moment and an ALJ the next, obscuring the staffing ratio line. To obtain an accurate measure of its staffing ratio, we believe ODAR should consider adjusting the staffing ratio again to account for the time that senior attorney adjudicators are performing duties similar to ALJs.
HEARING OFFICE STAFFING MIX
In a February 2009 memorandum, ODAR’s Deputy Commissioner instructed the Regional Offices to meet staffing mix goals by hiring at least 1.5 decision writers per ALJ and 2.5 other support staff per ALJ in each of its hearing offices. We reviewed the performance of hearing offices above and below these staffing mix ratios, and found that a lack of decision writers had a greater impact on productivity then a lack of other support staff.
Productivity Based on Decision Writer per ALJ Ratios
ODAR has instructed Regional Offices to meet a staffing mix goal of 1.5 decision writer per ALJ in each of its hearing offices. We examined FY 2009 hearing office productivity through January 2009 and determined that hearing offices with at least 1.5 decision writers per ALJ had an average of almost 9 percent higher productivity (dispositions per day per ALJ) than hearing offices with decision writer-to-ALJ ratios less than the goal (see Table 3). In January 2009, 57 hearing offices had a decision writer-to-ALJ ratio that was equal to or greater than the goal, while 83 hearing offices had a ratio less than the goal.
Table 3: Disposition Rate Comparison with Decision Writer per ALJ Ratios
(As of January 2009)
Decision Writer per ALJ Ratio Number of Hearing Offices Average
Equal or above 1.5 57 2.28 +9%
Below 1.5 83 2.10 ---
In March 2009, ODAR received its FY 2009 appropriation and ARRA funding, and through additional hiring, the number of hearing offices meeting the decision writer-per-ALJ goal increased from 57 to 105 by July 2009 (see Figure 2). However, since SSA has cautioned that new employees will not have an immediate impact on hearing office workloads, we did not recalculate the effect on productivity of the newly hired employees.
Figure 2: Comparison of Decision Writer per ALJ Ratios at Hearing Offices
Note: SSA was unable to provide staffing data on all 142 hearing offices.
Even with the additional hiring, 36 hearing offices were below the decision writer-per-ALJ goal, including 12 of the 20 hearing offices in the San Francisco Region (see Table 5). The hearing offices in the San Francisco Region had higher than average staffing ratios, but the staff was heavily weighted toward other support staff. We believe more decision writers may have assisted with dispositions. According to the Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge (RCALJ), the Region only had space for adding cubicles for other support staff but not enough space for private offices that are required for decision writers. The RCALJ said they are hoping to add a centralized writing unit in the San Francisco Region to alleviate the shortage of decision writers.
Table 5: Statistics on Hearing Offices and the Decision Writer per ALJ Goal
(As of July 2009)
Number of Hearing Offices in the Region
Number of Hearing Offices Meeting Decision Writer Goal
Number of Hearing Offices Not Meeting Decision Writer Goal Percentage of Hearing Offices Not Meeting Decision Writer Goal
Boston 7 5 2 29%
New York1 13 11 2 15%
Philadelphia 18 15 3 17%
Atlanta 31 26 5 16%
Chicago 20 14 6 30%
Dallas 16 16 0 0%
Kansas City 7 5 2 29%
Denver 5 2 3 60%
San Francisco 20 8 12 60%
Seattle 4 3 1 25%
Total 141 105 36 26%
Note 1: The staffing report we received from ODAR did not include the staffing at the Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Hearing Office in the New York Region.
Productivity Based on Other Support Staff per ALJ Ratios
We examined FY 2009 hearing office productivity through January 2009 and found most hearing offices had met the staffing mix goal of 2.5 other support staff per ALJ. In addition, we found the productivity difference between offices equal to or above this ratio was not significant, when compared to those offices under the goal (see Table 6). Using ODAR’s January 2009 staffing report, we found that 116 of the 140 hearing offices had met the goal for other support staff.
Table 6: Disposition Rate Comparison with Other Support Staff per ALJ Ratios
(As of January 2009)
Other Support Staff per ALJ Ratio Number of Hearing Offices Average
Disposition Rate Average
Equal or above 2.5 116 2.18 +1.5%
Below 2.5 24 2.15 --
As a result of the additional hiring in Spring of 2009, 133 hearing offices had met or exceeded the 2.5 other support staff-per-ALJ ratio, while only 8 hearing offices had not met the goal by July 2009 (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Comparing Other Support Staff per ALJ Ratios at Hearing Offices
Note: SSA was unable to provide staffing data on all 142 hearing offices.
AUGMENTING HEARING OFFICE STAFFING SHORTAGES
To better understand the staffing issues, we conducted site visits and interviews with ALJs, managers, and staff in six hearing offices and interviewed RCALJ management teams in five Regions. We found lack of consensus among these parties regarding an ideal staffing ratio or mix of staff. Those we interviewed stated they had difficulty achieving ideal staffing situations because of (1) fluctuating resources over the years to replace departing ALJs, managers and staff; (2) space shortages in hearing offices; and (3) difficulty backfilling some skill sets with existing staff.
As a result of these variables, some hearing offices needed more decision writers and some needed other support staff. As noted earlier, one regional manager stated the decision writers are more difficult to hire because hearing offices have space shortages and cannot build the number of private offices required for decision writers. In another case, a manager at a hearing office said her office had extra office space and therefore hired more decision writers to write decisions for other hearing offices. Finally, since the skill set for decision writers is more specialized than for other support staff, their work cannot be duplicated by others inside or outside the hearing office. For example, staff from other SSA components can assist with some of the pulling and administrative tasks associated with preparing a case. However, this staff would not have the expertise to assist with decision writing.
To augment staffing shortages in hearing offices, ODAR has begun implementing a number of initiatives to assist hearing offices in processing its workloads, including Operations Overtime Assistance, Centralized Pulling and Writing Units, Service Area Realignments, and the National Hearing Centers. The first two initiatives augment a hearing office’s support staff by assisting with a portion of the processing while allowing the case to remain with that same hearing office, whereas the last two initiatives are designed to move the hearing workload to another location for another team to complete the case more or less in its entirety.
For example, under the Operations Overtime Assistance initiative, staff from teleservice centers can assist hearing offices with some of the pulling and administrative tasks associated with preparing a case. However, this case would still remain with the original hearing office.
Under the Centralized Writing and Pulling Units initiative, a portion of the support staff work—decision writing and pulling duties—would be handled by ODAR staff in another location. The number of centralized units has grown over the years (see Table 7). Under the initiative, ODAR is considering expanding the use of such centralized units. In addition, some Regions use teams of attorneys in the regional offices to write the decisions. Four of the six hearing offices we reviewed temporarily transfer claims to other hearing offices for decision writing and pulling assistance to help reduce their backlogs. Additional centralized writing and pulling centers would assist hearing offices that lack the right number or composition of staff, while also providing management with greater flexibility to address unforeseen workload changes.
Table 7: Centralized Units in ODAR
(FYs 2008 - 2009)
Type of Centralized Unit Number of Regions with Each Type of Centralized Unit
FY 2008 FY 2009
Decision Writing 6 8
Pulling 1 3
STAFFING MIX RATIO GUIDANCE
While ODAR has set a staffing ratio goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ, adding the two staffing mix goals sums to only 4.0 staff per ALJ. At the time of our review, ODAR had not established any clear guidance as to how this 0.5 staff allocation should be used. As shown in our earlier analysis, the decision writers are more likely to be under-represented in the ratios because of their use as senior attorney adjudicators. In addition, office productivity was more negatively affected by the lack of decision writers than a lack of other support staff, in part because these decision writer duties are more difficult to augment. For these reasons, we believe ODAR should increase the decision writer-per-ALJ staffing mix ratio before adjusting the other support staff ratio. For example, under the current 4.5 support staff-per-ALJ staffing ratio, ODAR could modify the staffing mix from 1.5 decision writers per ALJ to 2.0 decision writers per ALJ. At our exit briefing with SSA, ODAR’s Deputy Commissioner stated his office was contemplating increasing the decision writers-per-ALJ ratio to 1.85.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Overall, ODAR had exceeded its national staffing ratio goal, though, as of July 2009,
42 hearing offices were still below the goal. In addition, we found ODAR’s staffing ratios did not account for the different roles the attorney adjudicators played in each hearing office. Our analysis found that hearing offices with at least 1.5 decision writers per ALJ had disposition rates about 9 percent higher than those offices under the goal. ODAR managers and staff noted a number of factors went into achieving an ideal staffing mix. ODAR has also expanded the use of centralized pulling and writing units to enhance the skill sets available to hearing offices and further assist hearing offices in processing workloads. ODAR could further enhance hearing office productivity by adjusting the staffing mix to require more decision writers, since this skill set is diluted by the Senior Attorney Adjudicators program and more difficult to replace when assisted by non-ODAR components.
To meet its staffing ratio and staffing mix goals in all its hearing offices, we recommend that ODAR:
1. To the extent possible, consider adding new hires to hearing offices below the 4.0 staffing ratio before offices already above this ratio.
2. Continue expanding the use of centralized pulling and writing centers to assist hearing offices in processing pending claims.
3. Determine how the attorney adjudicators’ new duties of issuing decisions affect the staffing ratio and adjust the ratio based on this analysis.
4. Consider modifying the staffing mix by increasing the number of decision writers per ALJ to fully define the staffing ratio goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ.
The Agency agreed with all our recommendations (see Appendix G).
Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr.
APPENDIX A – Acronyms
APPENDIX B – Hearing Office Organizational Chart and Position Descriptions
APPENDIX C – Scope and Methodology
APPENDIX D – Hearing Office Selection Criteria
APPENDIX E – Calculating Hearing Office Staffing Ratios
APPENDIX F – Initiatives Related to Hearing Office Staffing
APPENDIX G – Agency Comments
APPENDIX H – OIG Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments
AA Attorney Advisor
ALJ Administrative Law Judge
CIA Case Intake Assistant
CT Case Technician
DDS Disability Determination Services
FY Fiscal Year
FR Federal Register
GS Group Supervisor
HOCALJ Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge
HOD Hearing Office Director
HOSA Hearing Office System Administrator
LCT Lead Case Technician
M.S.P.R. United States Merit Systems Protection Board Reporter
ODAR Office of Disability Adjudication and Review
OIG Office of the Inspector General
OPM Office of Personnel Management
PA Paralegal Analyst
RCALJ Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge
SAA Senior Attorney Advisor
SAR Service Area Realignment
SCT Senior Case Technician
SSA Social Security Administration
Hearing Office Organizational Chart and Position Descriptions
HEARING OFFICE POSITION DESCRIPTIONS
Title Position Description
Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) The HOCALJ is directly responsible for all program and administrative matters concerning the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) hearing process in the hearing office. The HOCALJ is the first-line supervisor to administrative law judges, Supervisory Staff Attorney, and Hearing Office Director. The HOCALJ has full responsibility and full authority to hold hearings and issue decisions made while administering Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) The ALJ holds hearings and makes and issues decisions on appeals from determinations made in administering Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
Hearing Office Director (HOD) The HOD serves as the principal management adviser to the HOCALJ and participates significantly with the HOCALJ in the overall management and administration of the hearing office. The HOD supervises, plans, organizes, and controls operating activities in a hearing office.
Group Supervisor (GS) The GS is the first-line supervisor of the Attorney Advisor, the Paralegal Analyst, Lead Case Technician, Senior Case Technician, and the Case Technician. The GS directs all the activities of employees assigned to the group to ensure the efficient, timely and legally sufficient processing of hearing office cases.
Senior Attorney Advisor (SAA) The SAA reviews selected cases to determine factual and legal issues to determine if a fully favorable on-the-record decision can be issued under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The SAA also renders advice and assistance to the ALJ in pre-hearing development and preparation of cases for hearing, post-hearing development, and other post-hearing actions. The SSA analyzes, researches, and develops cases, while also formulating and drafting comprehensive decisions for the ALJ.
Attorney Adviser (AA) The AA renders advice and assistance to the ALJ in pre-hearing development and preparation of cases for hearing, post-hearing development, and other post-hearing actions. The AA analyzes, researches, and develops cases, while also formulating and drafting comprehensive decisions for the ALJ.
Paralegal Analyst (PA) The PA assists the ALJ in formulating the case decision. The PA evaluates all program, legal, and medical aspects of the case, including exhibits, all testimony, all pertinent laws and regulations, and precedent court cases.
Title Position Description
Lead Case Technician (LCT) The LCT is responsible for leading the work of three or more employees engaged in developing and processing a request for hearing from its receipt in the hearing office to its completion. The LCT processes more complex hearing cases where analysis of pertinent issues and interpretation of the provisions of laws, regulations, rulings, precedents, policies, procedures, and guidelines relative to the case are necessary.
Senior Case Technician (SCT) The SCT duties consist of processing more complex hearing cases. The SCT prepares case summaries by outlining, in narrative form, information from all documents that reflect the prior medical history of the claimant and treatment undertaken as well as any conflicting medical evidence.
Case Technician (CT) The CT reviews and analyzes a wide variety of medical and legal documentation, records, and evidence to ensure that case files are received and developed in accordance with legal and regulatory authorities. The CT also schedules cases for a hearing in accordance with legal and regulatory requirements and coordinates the time and date of the hearing with claimants, representatives, expert witnesses, and hearing reporters.
Hearing Office System Administrator (HOSA) The HOSA installs, configures, upgrades, and troubleshoots hearing office information technology hardware and software. The HOSA serves as the focal point in the ongoing support of information technology initiatives.
Administrative Assistant The administrative assistant is responsible for providing day-to-day administrative management services essential for the operation of the hearing office. These services include aspects of budget execution and formulation, personnel administration, procurement and supply, contract administration, travel, payroll services, and reports management.
Case Intake Assistant (CIA)
This is a specialized case assistant position, in that a majority of the work involves Master Docket duties. The CIA is responsible for developing and processing a case from its receipt in the office to its completion. The CIA reviews and analyzes the case to ensure sufficiency of evidence and to ensure that the case is ready to hear. Also, the CIA contacts the claimant to secure current evidence of record.
Title Position Description
Receptionist The receptionist provides information in person and/or over the telephone in response to inquiries concerning the general responsibilities, functions, program activities, and personnel of the hearing office as well as performing other general clerical activities.
Contact Representative The contact representative is responsible for dispensing information to the public, in person or by telephone, explaining the legal provisions, regulations, and procedural requirements for obtaining benefits under the Social Security program as they relate to a specific case. The contract representative also explains the application of regulatory provisions and the bases for the Agency’s determinations in individual cases.
Scope and Methodology
To meet the objective of this audit, we:
• Reviewed Social Security Administration (SSA) Office of the Inspector General reports, Government Accountability Office reports, and congressional testimonies by SSA officials.
• Reviewed (1) the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review’s (ODAR) staffing reports, position descriptions, Workload Reports, Case Processing and Management System reports; (2) SSA’s Performance and Accountability reports; and (3) SSA’s Initiatives to Reduce and Eliminate the Hearings Backlog.
• Reviewed ODAR’s bi-weekly staffing reports to analyze the number of staff in each hearing office and track the staff to administrative law judge (ALJ) ratios and staffing mix ratios in each hearing office. We compared the productivity in each hearing office based on those hearing offices that met the staffing mix goals and those hearing offices that fell short of the goal. We also plotted the trends in ALJ hearing office management and staff hiring over the last decade.
• Interviewed staff and managers in six hearing offices to verify the staffing reports and ratios and to discuss how staffing issues affect productivity and timeliness. We also interviewed five Regional Management teams as well as ODAR headquarters personnel regarding staffing issues. See Appendix D for our hearing office selection criteria.
We found the staffing data used in our review to be sufficiently reliable to meet our audit objective. The entity audited was the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Disability Adjudication and Review. We performed our review from November 2008 through October 2009 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.
Hearing Office Selection Criteria
The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) has 142 hearing offices throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The hearing offices range in size from small offices (fewer than seven administrative law judges [ALJ]) to medium hearing offices (seven or eight ALJs) to large hearing offices (more than eight ALJs). All hearing offices have the same core staff and perform the same function—hold hearings and issue decisions—as part of SSA's process for determining whether a person may receive benefits.
We selected six hearing offices based on a combination of factors. One factor was hearing office size (small, medium, or large). Another factor was hearing office performance. We used two measures that ODAR deemed most important: (1) disposition rate (number of dispositions per day per ALJ) and (2) average processing time. Each hearing office was ranked by disposition rate and average processing time over the last 3 fiscal years (FY). Hearing offices that were in the top 20 for either the disposition rate or average processing time for 2 of the past 3 FYs were considered top performers. Hearing offices that were in the bottom 20 for either disposition rate or average processing time for 2 of the past 3 FYs were considered low performers. We also considered a wide geographic distribution to maximize national coverage.
HEARING OFFICES SELECTED FOR THIS REVIEW
We selected 1 small, 1 medium, and 1 large hearing office in the top 20 performing hearing offices for either the disposition rate or average processing time (see
Table D-1: Top Performing Hearing Offices
Hearing Office Name Region Hearing Office Size
Charlottesville, Virginia Region III: Philadelphia Small
Shreveport, Louisiana Region VI: Dallas Medium
Albany, New York Region II: New York Large
Note: Performance level based on the number of dispositions per day per ALJ or average processing time for FYs 2006-2008.
We selected 1 small, 1 medium, and 1 large hearing office in the bottom 20 performing hearing offices (see Table D-2).
Table D-2: Low Performing Hearing Offices
Hearing Office Name Region Hearing Office Size
Santa Barbara, California Region IX: San Francisco Small
Lansing, Michigan Region V: Chicago Medium
Portland, Oregon Region X: Seattle Large
Note: Performance level based on the number of dispositions per day per ALJ or average processing time for FYs 2006-2008.
We also spoke to regional office management teams in five Regions: Philadelphia (Region III), Atlanta (Region IV), Chicago (Region V), Dallas (Region VI), and San Francisco (Region IX).
Calculating Hearing Office Staffing Ratios
Hearing offices are different size and have different numbers of managers. Previously, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review’s (ODAR) staffing ratio formula automatically excluded three management positions (Hearing Office Director, Hearing Office Systems Administrator, and Administrative Assistant) from each hearing office, regardless of the number of managers in each hearing office. However, in large hearing offices, there were more than three management positions, and in small hearing offices, there were fewer than three management positions. The prior formula used to calculate the number of support staff per administrative law judge (ALJ), therefore, either overstated or understated the staffing ratio depending on the size of the hearing office. In 2005, ODAR modified the formula to reflect the exact number of managers in each office.
In Table E-1, we provide an example of how the old formula overstated the staffing ratio. In this example, this large hearing office has seven managers. Under the old staffing ratio formula, ODAR removed only three manager positions from the formula leaving a support staff ratio of 3.92. However, under the new formula, ODAR removes the actual number of management positions, so the staffing ratio is now 3.58.
Table E-1: Example of Old Formula Overstating the Staffing Ratio1
(Calculated for a Hearing Office with Seven Managers)
Total on Duty Number of Administrative Law Judges
Number of Managers
Support Staff Ratio
Old Formula 62 12 3 3.92
New Formula 62 12 7 3.58
Note: Staffing ratio formula for each hearing office: Total staff on duty minus number of ALJs minus management positions divided by number of ALJs.
Conversely, Table E-2 provides an example of understating the staffing ratio. In this second example, this small hearing office has only one management position. Under the old staffing ratio formula, ODAR would remove three management positions from the formula leaving a staffing ratio of 3.00. However, under the new formula, ODAR removes the actual number of management positions, so the staffing ratio is now 3.67.
Table E-2: Example of Old Formula Understating the Staffing Ratio1
(Calculated for a Hearing Office with One Manager)
Total on Duty Number of Administrative Law Judges
Number of Managers
Support Staff Ratio
Old Formula 15 3 3 3.00
New Formula 15 3 1 3.67
Note: Staffing ratio formula for each hearing office: total staff on duty minus number of ALJs minus management positions divided by number of ALJs.
Initiatives Related to Hearing Office Staffing
In his May 2007 testimony to Congress Commissioner Astrue reported that the Social Security Administration (SSA) had developed a number of initiatives to eliminate the backlog of pending claims at the hearings level and prevent its recurrence. In our review of these initiatives, we identified the following initiatives affecting staffing in the hearing office.
Senior Attorney Adjudicator Initiative
The purpose of this initiative is to allow senior attorney adjudicators to issue fully favorable, on-the-record decisions. The goal is to expedite the decisions and conserve administrative law judge (ALJ) resources for the more complex cases that require a hearing. This initiative uses an approach similar to that of the Senior Attorney Adjudicator program that operated between 1995 and 2000.
Guidance for the Senior Attorney Adjudicator program was issued in a November 2007 Chief Judge Bulletin (CJB 07-10). Per the Bulletin, all hearing office GS-13 senior attorneys advisors, supervisory attorney advisors (hearing office directors), supervisory attorney advisors (group supervisors), and attorneys in the regional offices at the GS-13 level and above are authorized to issue fully favorable decisions. Hearing office managers assign cases to the senior attorney adjudicators and decide the amount of time these attorney adjudicators will devote to the adjudication duties. In July 2009, the Senior Attorney Adjudicator program was extended for an additional 2 years. Senior attorney adjudicators will also continue to draft decisions for ALJs as part of their normal decision writer duties.
Operations Overtime Assistance Initiative
The Operations Overtime Assistance began on June 23, 2007. Operations employees assist hearing offices with routine hearing office tasks including: folder assembly, burning compact discs, associating paper mail, application and query printing, expert witness photocopying, scanning, alphabetizing, mailing decisions, photocopying for consultative examination requests, filing closed files, folder audit or inventory, creating barcodes, and filing ALJ folders. All of these tasks support the work normally performed by other support staff in the hearing offices. Table F-1 illustrates the overtime hours that Operations employees worked from Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 through May 2009.
Table F-1: Operations Overtime to Support Hearing Offices
(As of May 2009)
Fiscal Year Operations Employee Overtime Hours
FY 20071 32,343
FY 2008 62,863
FY 2009 32,412
Note 1: Initiative started in June 2007.
Centralized Pulling Units and Centralized Writing Units Initiative
Centralized pulling and writing units augment staffing shortages at hearing offices that do not have an adequate staffing ratio and/or an adequate staffing mix to process their pending workloads. The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) is using centralized pulling units staffed by ODAR employees to assist hearing offices in the routine work of folder assembly, as described above in the Operations Overtime Assistance initiative.
In terms of centralized case pulling, electronic claim folders containing the claimant’s request for a hearing are sent electronically from the hearing offices to the centralized location for pulling. After the claim is pulled, it is sent back electronically to the hearing office. ODAR added two centralized pulling units in the last year (see Table F-2), bringing the count of Regions with such units to a total of three. ODAR is considering expanding centralized pulling units in FY 2010, but this will depend on the availability of funds.
ODAR has also expanded its use of centralized writing units, and hopes to continue this trend should funding be available. ODAR’s count of centralized writing units grew to eight in FY 2009 (see Table F-2). These units, staffed by ODAR employees, provide decision-writing services for hearing offices. The process of electronically transferring claims is similar to the process described in pulling. The decisions are written in preparation for the ALJ’s final disposition and signature.
Table F-2: Centralized Units in ODAR (FYs 2008 - 2009)
Type of Centralized Unit Number of Regions With This Type of Centralized Unit
FY 2008 FY 2009
Pulling 1 3
Decision Writing 5 8
Service Area Realignment Initiative
The Service Area Realignment (SAR) initiative was implemented in FY 2007. This initiative has a two-phased strategy. In the first phase, claims are permanently transferred from one Region to another. The permanent claim transfers are made on a flow basis and designed to decrease aged pending workloads of heavily impacted hearing offices. In the second phase, SSA field offices are realigned from hearing offices in high workload Regions to hearing offices in lower workload Regions. New claims submitted into the realigned SSA field offices are processed and heard at hearing offices in a different part of the country from where the claimant lives, usually by video-conference.
National Hearing Centers and Video Hearings Initiatives
In conjunction with the SAR initiative, ODAR implemented the National Hearing Center and Video Hearing initiatives to assist in processing claims in heavily impacted Regions and hearing offices. These initiatives allow claims to be transferred within and between Regions and then heard electronically using video technology. According to ODAR, claims being transferred into National Hearing Centers are coming from areas of the country with the largest backlogs.
Date: January 11, 2010 Refer Refer To: S1J-3
To: Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr.
From: Margaret J. Tittel /s/
Acting Chief of Staff
Subject: Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Draft Report, “Hearing Office Performance and Staffing”
Thank you for the opportunity to review and comment on the draft report. We appreciate OIG’s efforts in conducting this review. Attached is our response to the report findings and recommendations.
Please let me know if we can be of further assistance. You may direct staff inquiries to
Candace Skurnik, Director, Audit Management and Liaison Staff, at (410) 965-4636.
COMMENTS ON THE OFFICE OF THE INSPECTOR GENERAL (OIG) DRAFT REPORT, “HEARING OFFICE PERFORMANCE AND STAFFING” (A-12-08-28088)
Overall, we agree with the results of this review and the intent of the recommendations. We began implementing initiatives that align with the recommendations prior to OIG’s audit. In addition, we appreciate the report’s description of our efforts to address productivity, including the senior attorney initiative, the operations overtime assistance initiative, establishment of centralized pulling and writing units, the service area realignment initiative, and establishment of the national hearing centers and video hearing units. Below are our responses to the specific recommendations:
To the extent possible, consider adding new hires to hearing offices below the 4.0 staffing ratio before offices already above this ratio.
We agree. We already have an initiative in place to maintain sufficient hearing office staffing. On November 23, 2009, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review issued fiscal year (FY) 2010 hiring authority and staffing guidance to its regional management teams. That instructed regions to target a staff ratio of 4.5 staff at the regional level.
Please note that, in some offices where we do not have space to accommodate the ideal number of staff, the hiring guidance is a minimum staff ratio of 4.0.
Continue expanding the use of centralized pulling and writing centers to assist hearing offices in processing pending claims.
This initiative is already part of our Disability Reduction Plan. We are in the process of establishing new centralized units with a decision writing unit planned for McLean, Virginia and a screening/pulling/writing unit in St. Louis, Missouri. The report should acknowledge that due to the General Services Administration’s space and facility requirements, it could take
18 to 24 months to establish these units.
Determine how the attorney adjudicators’ new duties of issuing decisions affect the staffing ratio and adjust the ratio based on this analysis.
We already take the dual roles of an attorney adjudicator (staff decision writer and case adjudicator) into account. In our November 23, 2009, hiring authority guidance, we raised the decision writer to ALJ ratio from 1.75 to 1.85 in most offices. The exception is offices that have significant space constraints and therefore have a ratio of 4.0, 1.5 decision writers and 2.5 other support staff.
Consider modifying the staffing mix by increasing the number of decision writers per ALJ to fully define the staffing ratio goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ.
We raised the decision writer to ALJ ratio from 1.75 to 1.85. We continue to strive to reach a
4.5 ratio at the regional level. We plan to use the staffing resources we have received in
FY 2010 to achieve that objective.
(SSA also provided technical comments, which have been addressed, where appropriate, in this report.)
OIG Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments
Walter Bayer, Director, Chicago Audit Division
Nicholas Milanek, Audit Manager, Falls Church Office
In addition to those named above:
Mary Ann Braycich, Senior Program Analyst
Yaquelin Lara, Auditor
Faisal Khan, Auditor
For additional copies of this report, please visit our web site at www.socialsecurity.gov/oig or contact the Office of the Inspector General’s Public Affairs Staff Assistant at (410) 965-4518. Refer to Common Identification Number
Commissioner of Social Security
Office of Management and Budget, Income Maintenance Branch
Chairman and Ranking Member, Committee on Ways and Means
Chief of Staff, Committee on Ways and Means
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Social Security
Majority and Minority Staff Director, Subcommittee on Social Security
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Committee on the Budget, House of Representatives
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives
Chairman and Ranking Minority, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations,
House of Representatives
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Finance
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Social Security Pensions and Family Policy
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Senate Special Committee on Aging
Social Security Advisory Board
Overview of the Office of the Inspector General
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is comprised of an Office of Audit (OA), Office of Investigations (OI), Office of the Counsel to the Inspector General (OCIG), Office of External Relations (OER), and Office of Technology and Resource Management (OTRM). To ensure compliance with policies and procedures, internal controls, and professional standards, the OIG also has a comprehensive Professional Responsibility and Quality Assurance program.
Office of Audit
OA conducts financial and performance audits of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) programs and operations and makes recommendations to ensure program objectives are achieved effectively and efficiently. Financial audits assess whether SSA’s financial statements fairly present SSA’s financial position, results of operations, and cash flow. Performance audits review the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of SSA’s programs and operations. OA also conducts short-term management reviews and program evaluations on issues of concern to SSA, Congress, and the general public.
Office of Investigations
OI conducts investigations related to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in SSA programs and operations. This includes wrongdoing by applicants, beneficiaries, contractors, third parties, or SSA employees performing their official duties. This office serves as liaison to the Department of Justice on all matters relating to the investigation of SSA programs and personnel. OI also conducts joint investigations with other Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies.
Office of the Counsel to the Inspector General
OCIG provides independent legal advice and counsel to the IG on various matters, including statutes, regulations, legislation, and policy directives. OCIG also advises the IG on investigative procedures and techniques, as well as on legal implications and conclusions to be drawn from audit and investigative material. Also, OCIG administers the Civil Monetary Penalty program.
Office of External Relations
OER manages OIG’s external and public affairs programs, and serves as the principal advisor on news releases and in providing information to the various news reporting services. OER develops OIG’s media and public information policies, directs OIG’s external and public affairs programs, and serves as the primary contact for those seeking information about OIG. OER prepares OIG publications, speeches, and presentations to internal and external organizations, and responds to Congressional correspondence.
Office of Technology and Resource Management
OTRM supports OIG by providing information management and systems security. OTRM also coordinates OIG’s budget, procurement, telecommunications, facilities, and human resources. In addition, OTRM is the focal point for OIG’s strategic planning function, and the development and monitoring of performance measures. In addition, OTRM receives and assigns for action allegations of criminal and administrative violations of Social Security laws, identifies fugitives receiving benefit payments from SSA, and provides technological assistance to investigations.