Since 2010, Social Security has closed 64 field offices (scroll all the way down to the bottom to see the list) and 533 temporary offices, reduced hours and gotten rid of more than 11,000 employees in its remaining 1,245 field offices. That's according to a report from the bipartisan staff of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which held a hearing on Social Security's downsizing Wednesday afternoon.
The committee found that the agency made decisions on cutbacks without first trying to figure out the impact on its 43 million annual customers, most of whom are between the ages of 60 and 69. The panel says Social Security also didn't ask how local officials thought the closings would affect usage of neighboring offices or what kinds of transportation options might be available to help people get there.
"[Social Security] failed to consult any local stakeholders and minimally consulted local agency management until after the commissioner agreed to close a field office," the report says.
Forgetting that many seniors aren't wired
The committee points out that while the agency has been trying to move as many users online as possible, it made these closing decisions without considering that more than half of people 65 and older don't have online access at home. Officials also disregarded that nearly a quarter of older adults report that health or other issues make reading difficult, the report says.
During Wednesday's hearing, Nancy Berryhill, deputy commissioner for the Social Security Administration, defended the online emphasis. “As customer expectations have changed, we need to balance those needs with the needs of those who prefer alternative options,” she said.
But William Meyer, founder and managing principal of Social Security Solutions, a Social Security advisory service that relies on sophisticated software to identify claiming strategies, pooh-poohs Berryhill's point of view.
"The Social Security Administration isn’t acknowledging that this retiree segment wants and needs to talk to people on the phone," he says. "Thinking that you can automate this and really help millions of people is just crazy. This is the biggest financial decision that most people make in a lifetime, and Social Security is going in the opposite direction of good customer service."
Sometimes, face-to-face is best
Meyer is particularly critical of Social Security's efforts to open automated kiosks in the front of some Social Security offices. "They did it with a lot of pomp and circumstance that I believe was all done to to divert attention from these cutbacks," he says.
Even if you are inclined to conduct complex retirement planning business online, some Social Security transactions can best be handled face to face, says Joe Elsasser, a certified financial planner and creator of Social Security Timing, another service that calculates recipients' optimum filing strategy.
For instance, Elsasser says when people want to file for spousal-only or survivor-only benefits while allowing their own worker's benefit to earn delayed retirement credits -- a strategy that can easily bring a married couple more than $100,000 in additional benefits during their lifetimes -- they should go to the Social Security office in person to make sure the paperwork is handled correctly.
The best times to go
Given the reduction in Social Security offices, Elsasser recommends that if you must go in person, do it when you are less likely to have to take a number and wait two or more hours. "Around the first of every month, getting service is really challenging," he says. "There are even big spikes in telephone wait times."
Instead, choose the "middle of the month and the middle of the week," he advises.
It is also smart to sign up for a My Social Security online account to get routine information.
Even when staffs were fatter, Social Security didn't give advice about benefit strategies. Understanding claiming options can make a huge difference in how much someone is able to get from the program. While Social Security does publish lots of information online, there are thousands of rules and regulations that affect benefit calculations. Getting expert help before you claim is the best way to ensure that you aren't leaving retirement money on the table.
Meanwhile, if you think Social Security should do a better job of helping its customers navigate the program, tell your congressional representative.
Social Security field offices closed since 2010
|Ketchikan, Alaska||Rumford, Maine||Hugo, Oklahoma|
|Camden, Arkansas||Hamtramck, Michigan||Portland (Northeast), Oregon|
|Barstow, California||Moberly, Missouri||Klamath Falls, Oregon|
|Redlands, California||Biloxi, Mississippi||Somerset, Pennsylvania|
|Corona, California||Burlington, North Carolina||Philadelphia (North Central), Pennsylvania|
|Bristol, Connecticut||Dickinson, North Dakota||Philadelphia (Woodland Ave.), Pennsylvania|
|Norwalk, Connecticut||Beatrice, Nebraska||Jenkintown, Pennsylvania|
|Shepherd Park, D.C.||Montclair, New Jersey||Pittsburgh (Northside), Pennsylvania|
|Quincy, Florida||Glen Rock, New Jersey||Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania|
|Pinellas Park, Florida||Amherst, New York||Yauco, Puerto Rico|
|Palatka, Florida||Grand Central (New York), New York||Cayey, Puerto Rico|
|Moultrie, Georgia||Williamsburg (Brooklyn), New York||Hato Rey, Puerto Rico|
|Swainsboro, Georgia||Kingston, New York||Camden, South Carolina|
|Clinton, Iowa||Bronx (Hub), New York||Maryville, Tennessee|
|Chicago (West Town), Illinois||Astoria, New York||Memphis (East), Tennessee|
|Pittsburg, Kansas||Rome, New York||Midland, Texas|
|Louisville (West), Kentucky||Chinatown (New York), New York||Dallas (West), Texas|
|Bastrop, Louisiana||East New York (Brooklyn), New York||Houston (Downtown), Texas|
|Plaquemine, Louisiana||Long Beach, New York||Richmond (West), Virginia|
|New Orleans (Clearview), Louisiana||Mount Vernon, New York||Seattle (South), Washington|
|Chelsea, Massachusetts||Glendale, New York|
|Greenfield, Massachusetts||Euclid, Ohio|
Source: U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.