Sorry about that hiatus - I got sidetracked in life, but I'm back!
I work in the largest Social Security office in my area, working primarily with disabled individuals, but I have my hands in all aspects of what our agency does. Retirement, disability, survivors, SSN cards, the whole shebang.
I love what I do, and do my best to juggle the work which is far too much for one person to complete. I work with other hard workers, and some who are just taking up space.
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First of all... I am taking my break, not answering on your (the taxpayers) dime. When someone files an application for disability, they go through a fairly lengthy interview - usually about 1 1/2 hours - gathering information from them about their work history, medical providers and treatments and finances to determine whether or not they meet non-medical rules. For instance, someone may be living with a very serious medical condition, however is able to hold down a decent job in spite of their health; this person may be denied without ever examining their medical decision. That's not what you asked though. Once we determine that "the claimant" meets the non-medical rules, we send their case to another office - this the state disability determination office in whatever area the claimant lives. That office is responsible for gathering the medical records from the doctors/hospitals/clinics which the claimant told us about during the interview. They then use the medical information, in conjunction with the claimants age, job history and educational background and to determine whether the claimant meets the criteria for disability or not. What is the criteria? That they have a physical or mental condition that prevents them from engaging in "substantial gainful activity" that is expected to last for 12 months or longer or result in death. Forgive me for any ignorant looking typos or other errors - I am also not typing this on govt. equipment, but on my phone.
Ahhh, a brief afternoon break before I abandon my desk (and my phone, my mail and all of the other work waiting for me) to go work at the "front counter" to serve the walk-in public. It's all about the budget This particular office generally has 2 people answering the general information line, for a service population of 700,000+. If you're lucky enough to have someone's direct extension, they likely won't answer because they are busy filling in doing the job of someone who left and whose position was never filled. In the last 12 months we've lost (quit, transferred or promoted out of position) at least 8 employees whose vacant positions will not be filled.
I can’t say much about Unemployment since I don’t know much about it. I’m fortunate to have never gotten up close and personal with that system. Those of us on the front lines within the agency definitely have ideas of how to trim the fat from our programs, and frequently discuss it passionately while out to lunch. That’s not exactly what you asked, though. The answer depends on which program we’re discussing. There is a lot of rules most people don’t know about the programs, and to fully explain my answer, I have to explain some terminology. Social Security covers two different programs: 1) Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance aka Social Security: Look at your paystubs. This is the line that says OASDI tax. This comes out of earned income only and goes into the Social Security trust fund. You cannot draw out of this trust fund if you have not paid enough into it. A person on this program is paid based on the average lifetime earnings covered under Social Security. This means until retirement age, or until they become medically disabled. We call this DIB (Disability Insurance Benefits) or RIB (Retirement Insurance Benefits). 2) Supplemental Security Income aka SSI: This money comes out of the general taxpayer funds. You need not ever have worked to draw out of this program. This is a “needs-based” program; essentially Federal Welfare, and the most a person can receive on this program in 2012 is $698/mo. We call this SSI. In an earlier post, we discussed the process used to determine whether or not a person qualifies as medically disabled. “A physical or mental condition that prevents them from engaging in ‘substantial gainful activity’ that is expected to last for 12 months or longer or result in death.” Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) is a set limit each year set by Congress. In 2012, this is $1010/mo or more. What that means we are deciding whether a person has the ability to earn that much or more per month – NOT whether or not they can still make the amount they used to. If a person is 30 years old and has never done anything but heavy construction, they may very well be able to start a new career in a more sedentary environment. A 50-year old may not be able to start over so easily. These things are taken into account. Both programs have return-to-work incentives built in. These incentives are designed to help those who truly want to return to work and to eventually wean themselves off of the system. I have worked with people who are shining examples of this. On the other hand, they can both be easily abused. I have seen plenty of this, as well. The incentives are there – people have to choose to use them.
When I first went into public service, I imagined government employees much like many people probably do - cold, bureaucratic, unyielding, difficult to talk to. Most of the people who make contact with our agency expect to get exactly that, and depending on who they talk to, sometime they will get EXACTLY that. And who wants to deal with Social Security anyways? If you're calling us and you DON'T need a Social Security card, chances are you're dealing with a medical issue that has you out of work, and you've had to swallow your pride and admit you need help, you're getting on in years and are now being tossed into the retirement and Medicare gauntlet, or you've lost a loved one. Do you really think these people need to hear some mindless automaton barking policies and laws at them? I am not that. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I have experiences and I am human. I try to speak to every single person on that level - human to human. I take time to put them at ease and explain things, rather than just repeating a script. There is no bigger reward to me than to have someone finish their business and say, "Wow that was a LOT easier than I thought it would be,” or “I was really nervous about doing this, but you made the whole process very pleasant." I can make or break their day, simply with my attitude. I can give them hope or make them feel worthless. I can leave them enlightened or confused. I can improve the bureaucracy for someone, simply by going to work. But yes, sometimes the frustration is too much to bear! With under-staffing there is far too much work for the number of employees. Every call I don't return, every piece of mail which sits unopened, everything on my to-do list that sits unfinished on my desk haunts me. Each one represents a human being who is (at least in their own mind, if not literally) depending on me for the only money they get. To them, the fact that I may have only 5 hours per week allocated to do 4 times that much work is meaningless. The fact that I have 45 days of backlogged mail doesn’t mean anything – they turned theirs in a week ago, and that should be PLENTY of time for me to have processed it. I know many of my clients by name, and I can’t apologize enough for not being able to devote the amount of time to their case that they deserve. We are constantly at the mercy of the budget and there is just nothing that I can do about it. I can only pray that our office will be given an overtime allotment so I can work on weekends to try to keep the backlog from drowning me. Why don’t I work in the private sector? I’ve been there. I was stuck in a $25k/yr job with no medical benefits and no hope for advancement. After 6 years in the agency I now make $65k/yr with excellent health benefits, working Monday through Friday (with the occasional Saturday), 8am to 4:30pm. I stay because the joy I get from my job USUALLY outweighs the drudgery.
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Health benefits are good, but vision & dental cost an arm and a leg. Thrift Savings Plan w/ 5% agency matching, FERS retirement system, Health Savings Account.. the basics. 4 hours of sick leave per pay period (2 wks), 3 tier annual leave - 4 hours per PP until you've been there for 3 years, then you get 6 hours per PP until 15 years, then you get a full 8 hours per PP. There are more things that I'm not well acquainted with because I haven't needed them, so I can't really say. I think it's a pretty basic federal benefit package.
I think it’s probably a pretty even split, as the demographics in the office vary greatly. It’s hard to say for certain though, as being Federal employees, we have to be careful about our political discussions in the office. We tend to stick together and talk politics only amongst our own ‘clique.’ I run with the conservative crowd. In the lunchroom, we talk about government waste in our own programs, policies we wish we could change and how we're frustrated by the entitlement mentality.
My apologies to everyone for taking so long to respond - last week was nightmarish in so many ways! I'm starting with this question because it is the easiest - YES - we are seeing more people applying than ever before! I still take my share of claims from people who seem to have very legitimate disabilities, but a lot more people are filing because "I may as well try" when they lose their job. The rules for eligibility haven't changed at all, so it's the same.
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