By, Rebecca Roberts, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Fall 2022
After a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Social Security Administration (SSA) re-opened its field offices in April 2022. The agency, however, faces an ever-increasing backlog of cases caused by years of underfunding and compounded by the national pandemic. While the number of beneficiaries grew by 21% since 2010, from 54 million to 65 million, the agency’s budget fell by 17% in that same time when adjusted for inflation. Additionally, staffing fell by 13%. In 2021 alone, approximately 1,400 staff quit at a time when the SSA has had to freeze hiring, and the agency expects to lose 4,500 more frontline employees.
This has made it harder for people to access their Social Security benefits, as there are less employees to answer phones, take appointments, and process applications. Currently, nearly half of calls to SSA go unanswered because of wait times or get busy signals. In other instances, some go weeks without being able to reach an employee for help at all. In August 2022, average wait times for initial disability decisions hit an all-time high of more than six months, an estimate almost three times higher than a decade ago. Considering that many disability applicants get denied on their initial applications and must apply for reconsideration, the average disability claimant waits more than two years for a final decision. Meanwhile, over 10,000 people die every year without getting an answer according the AARP.
On May 17, 2022, the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on strengthening the agency’s customer service. Notably, the agency’s deputy commissioner targeted three key areas for funding to improve customer service and avoid employee burn-out: hiring, overtime, and investing in IT. The SSA’s fiscal year 2023 budget request is $14.8 billion, a $ 1.8 billion increase or 14% increase from the 2022 budget. This budget request focuses on hiring thousands of new employees, increasing overtime availability to allow an expansion of employees’ case-processing capacity, and modernizing technological tools.
While no appropriations bill has yet been adopted for fiscal year 2023, Congress adopted a “continuing resolution” on September 29, 2022, to avoid a federal government shutdown. The resolution included $400 million, about half of what was proposed, which will prevent the SSA from having to institute a hiring freeze and cut overtime. While the future of the agency’s budget has yet to be answered, attention to the problem has increased as House Ways and Means Committee leaders and others have called attention to these issues and begun to hone in on them. For now, applicants stuck in limbo can only wait and hope that policymakers will act soon.
 Mark Whitehead, SSA Field Offices Reopen to Massive Backlogs after Covid Shutdown, Disability Denials (May 4, 2022), https://disabilitydenials.com/social-security-disability/ssa-field-offices-reopen/.
 Kathleen Romig, Policymakers Must Act to Address Social Security Service Crisis, Ctr. Budget and Policy Priorities (May 26, 2022), https://www.cbpp.org/blog/policymakers-must-act-to-address-social-security-service-crisis
 Lorie Konish, ‘You’re on hold forever.’ Social Security Applicants Complain About Agency’s Long Waits, CNBC (Feb. 16, 2022), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/02/16/social-security-beneficiaries-applicants-complain-about-long-waits.html..
 Lorie Konish, As Social Security disability application wait times hit record high, experts say it’s a sign the agency needs more funding, CNBC (Sep. 16, 2022), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/16/long-social-security-service-waits-signal-need-for-more-funds.html.
 Drew Friedman, SSA wants to add 4,000 employees to ease burdensome workloads, Federal News Network (Jun. 1, 2022), https://federalnewsnetwork.com/hiring-retention/2022/06/ssa-wants-to-add-4000-employees-to-ease-burdensome-workloads/.
 Eric Katz, Senate Passes Stopgap to Avert Shutdown for 10 Weeks, House Must Still Act, Gov. Exec. (Sept. 29, 2022), https://www.govexec.com/management/2022/09/senate-passes-stopgap-avert-shutdown-10-weeks-house-must-still-act/377834/.
 Konish, As Social Security disability application wait times hit record high, experts say it’s a sign the agency needs more funding, supra note 9.