America

I-Team: Too Many Teleworkers Blamed for Social Security Backlog

What to Know

  • New Yorkers have worst-in-the-nation wait times when trying to schedule hearings to obtain Social Security program benefits

  • It currently takes more than 2 years to get a hearing in front of a Social Security judge in Manhattan

  • An audit blamed the long waits on insufficient staff, low morale, and too many Social Security employees working from home in New York

New Yorkers have worst-in-the-nation wait times when trying to schedule hearings to obtain Social Security program benefits, according to data posted on the Social Security Administration website.

It currently takes more than two years to get a hearing in front of a Social Security judge in Manhattan, according to the site. Its almost as bad in Queens and Buffalo, where it takes 22 and 23 months, respectively.

Thats compared to Boston, where it takes just 9 months, and Detroit, where it takes 11 months to see a judge.

"Ive had clients die while they wait for a hearing," said Brian Mittman, a White Plains attorney who represents injured workers trying to access Social Security benefits in New York.

Many of the New Yorkers in line waiting to see a Social Security judge are seeking a decision on their application for Social Security Disability Insurance, a program that provides monthly income to people who can no longer work because of an illness or injury. The program is available to people who have worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes.

Lena, a receptionist who injured her ankle and both shoulders after falling down, said her home was almost foreclosed upon while she waited two years for a Social Security judge to approve her disability claim.

"I needed to sell my jewelry to help out with bills," she said. "I worked hard all these years and it just felt like I have to wait this long to see if I can get this benefit. Its very discouraging."

An audit conducted last year by the Social Security inspector general blamed the long waits on insufficient staff, low morale — and too many Social Security employees working from home in New York.

One Social Security judge told the auditors, "because of telework, there was often no one around when he needed help."

A manager told the auditors that "allowing three telework days was excessive," and "the work often requires a physical presence in the office."

Another staffer said "there were some duties that staff was unable to perform while teleworking, such as printing medical records."

Still another manager cited "the negative effect telework had on office morale since the employees do not see each other regularly."

The number of Social Security judges, clerks, and support staffers who telework from home has spiked dramatically, from about 2,600 in 2015 to more than 5,500 in 2017. The audit says some staffers have been permitted to telecommute three or even four days a week.

Marilyn Zahm, who leads the Association of Administrative Law Judges, a union representing 1,400 Social Security judges, said some teleworking privileges are perfectly reasonable. But she said regional managers have continued to allow the clerks who support New York judges to work from home – even while staff numbers are down.

"This is the worst managed place I have ever seen," Zham said. "If we had a full complement of staff, teleworking three days a week might well be sensible. But when you dont have enough staff there is no one in the office to do the work that needs to be done, you have a problem."

John Shallman, a spokesman for the New York Social Security Regional Office, said managers have already taken steps to address the growing backlog of hearing requests and wait times.

"In the New York Region, we hired 12 administrative law judges in FY 2017 and we are in the process of hiring 38 additional support staff in FY 2018," Shallman wrote in an email to the I-Team.

In April, Stephanie Hall, the acting deputy chief of staff for the Social Security Administration, wrote a memo responding to the inspector general audit. In it, she agreed with the auditors recommendation that teleworkers should be recalled to their official duty stations on an "as needed" basis.

Shallman also said the agency planned to chip away at the wait times in New York by holding video hearings that allow judges in other Social Security regions to hear about 14,000 pending cases in New York.

The Social Security Administration has not had an Senate-confirmed Commissioner since Michael Astrue, nominated by President George W. Bush, left the post in 2013. President Obama failed to appoint a replacement after his first nominee encountered trouble in the Senate. In April, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Andrew Saul, a New York businessman who serves on the MTA Board. That nomination is awaiting confirmation.

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