At some point, almost every American will make a trip to a Social Security Administration (SSA) office.
On a recent visit to an SSA office, I accompanied a friend who was checking to see if she was eligible for Social Security benefits. Since she had retired under the older Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), the windfall elimination provision would be applied to any payments that she might have received from various private sector jobs. (See The Windfall Elimination Provision: How Does It Work? To Whom Does It Apply?)
The image of federal employees is often formed by people who work in a position where people interact with the public. Probably the most likely encounter Americans have with federal employees is when they visit a Social Security office, Post Office, apply for benefits at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility, etc. If the person who works with the public is competent and professional, a favorable impression is created. If the person is rude, surly or acts like doing the job is a major intrusion on their “real life” outside of the office, an indelible impression is created that is sometimes seen as representative of the overall federal workforce.
No doubt, most of us have met both kinds of people and, when meeting the latter kind of person, felt the urge to ask a few direct questions about whether they realized how they come across to the many people with whom they are meeting.
I visited a Social Security office in a small city in the Florida Panhandle. The office is located in an older part of town but the area is well maintained. The office is also surrounded by law firms with signs offering to help people seeking money from the government, presumably from the Social Security office located a few feet from the front door of the law firm.
We had an appointment to meet with a Social Security representative. Making the appointment was easy. The number for the office was available on the internet and a man called back to confirm the appointment after we had left a message requesting a particular date and time.
It appeared that most people did not have an appointment. That is a mistake. If you can make an appointment for the subject you need to discuss with the agency, it is worthwhile to do so.
The waiting room was already filled with people before the 9:00 AM opening. Those without an appointment could find the waiting time to be longer than I experienced. A security guard was sitting at a table in front of the room and politely suggested people coming in take a seat. A woman already seated suggested we sign in at a computer screen off to the side in order to get in line.
Because we had an appointment, we were called within a few minutes of our appointment time. From some of the stares from other patrons who had arrived earlier, they were unaware of the appointment process or why some topics are eligible for an appointment and why it enabled us to meet with the representative before others had been called.
The waiting room was clean and fairly comfortable with a large TV screen in front of the room listing numbers that had been called and advising about various Social Security benefits in English and Spanish. From watching the screen, I learned a few basics about the Social Security system, including that a person may be able to collect Social Security disability payments while still working. That seemed incongruous but, since I am not among the 16% of Americans in the workforce considered disabled, I was not going to be able to receive this largesse anyway. That may also be why the Social Security program that pays disability claims will probably run out of money by 2016, forcing politicians to either cut Social Security benefits, raise taxes or, most likely, dip into general Social Security funds for the money.
Those waiting seemed to represent a random cross-section of America. Many waiting were older people but there were also a few young people as well. In some cases, those waiting appeared to be a family with several generations from a grandmother to a small child. Out of respect for others who would be in the office and those who work there, I dressed in khakis and a collared shirt. As it turned out, what I considered to be dressing appropriately was somewhat out of place among the other patrons. Flip-flops and old t-shirts were more common.
Dealing with SSA Representatives
Our initial contact person was polite, professional, and direct with her questions. She quickly determined that the situation with the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) was out of the ordinary and she asked us to take a seat until another representative with expertise in this area was available to handle our “case.”
In a few minutes, we entered the inner office which was larger than expected. There were a number of cubicles with desks and most were occupied. Apparently those with more complex situations were directed into this room to meet with a person with an expertise in some area of the system. We met with Lorna Ezzel.
She was polite and the chairs were comfortable. The office was typical of many government offices, clean and comfortable but not lavish. It was busy and well organized with people coming and going as they were called. Those with whom we dealt were efficient, aware that others were waiting, but still took the time to ensure our questions were answered, the information was entered into the computer accurately, and that any benefits due were based on accurate information. Ms. Ezzel asked a number of questions, obviously knowledgeable about the WEP and how it worked, and she was able to pull up a work history on her desktop computer in no time at all.
Once she had the information she needed to determine if any benefits were due, the program calculated the amount of benefits that would be received each month, including a significant deduction for the WEP. She also asked about the starting date for the benefits, explained options for receiving benefits sooner or waiting until later (more money paid out each month by waiting several more years) and read the amount of the benefit that would be received in each instance.
The process was quick, professional and the information in the SSA database was accurate. Within 15 minutes, we were through with the process and departed and Ms. Ezzel was moving on to the next customer.
Moreover, the initial benefit as outlined by the SSA representative was deposited electronically into the appropriate checking account within 24 hours.
Expectations and Results
I dreaded the thought of dealing with a large agency as a member of the public where the agency deals with a constant stream of people on a daily basis. Having waited in long lines for a long time at the Department of Motor Vehicles in several states to obtain a required license, I harbored unpleasant memories of rude, harried clerks who were sick and tired of dealing with a never ending stream of people and answering the same questions over and over again.
From the short time I was in the SSA offices, I did see some members of the public who were probably difficult for with SSA representatives. They were apparently lacking information necessary to process their claim, were not qualified for the benefits they thought they should get, or had some other problem leading to agitation and disappointment. Wanting to grab the person’s t-shirt and shake them, particularly after a long day behind a glass screen answering questions and processing claims, would be understandable but lead to a quick diversion into a new line of work. The people working there remained calm and polite and moved on to the next customer.
I would not want to be an SSA representative. Even if I had the necessary expertise, I do not have the patience or personality to deal with the public in a way that these SSA representatives must do on a daily basis. Seeing how this SSA office was run from the perspective of a customer, I have more respect for the job these folks do.
For those who are going to visit an SSA office, here are several suggestions to improve your experience and to receive any benefits that are more likely to be computed correctly and quickly:
- Make an appointment to save time and inconvenience.
- Read the advice on the internet from SSA about the documentation you will need to have with you in order to process your claim.
- Have your questions thought out in advance. Write them down if necessary.
- Remember that the person with whom you are dealing is probably pressed for time and others are waiting. Have your information necessary for your claim available and ready to go.
- Be polite, direct and respectful. Your experience will be better as the person is more likely to treat you the way you would like to be treated.
- Many people dress like slobs when going to an SSA office. Do not do that. People quickly categorize you by the way you dress and act. Respect them by looking like a respectable person and your first impression is likely to yield better results.