With most employees teleworking during the pandemic, the watchdog faulted the agency for not having a system to track and return customers’ identification documents.
The Social Security Administration is struggling with a backlog of thousands of unprocessed eligibility documents and half of field offices report being "overwhelmed" by mail as a result of the agency's inability to adequately manage mail processing during the pandemic, the agency's inspector general reported last week.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most Social Security offices have been in a maximum telework stance, but some managers have had to report to their offices to handle mail duties. Lawmakers have repeatedly highlighted complaints from constituents about the need to mail original copies of sensitive documents, including drivers licenses and birth certificates, to the agency as a result of the office closures.
The agency’s inspector general last week issued an interim report on issues surrounding the handling of mail at field offices and found that the agency “has no performance metrics” and does not maintain information on the volume of mail coming in, going out or deemed pending. And it does not have policies or procedures to track and return original documents that customers send to provide proof that they are eligible for benefits or a Social Security card.
According to the report, the issues around handling the mail have led to a backlog of thousands of customers’ original documents and thousands of unprocessed applications for Social Security cards.
“For example, one [program service center] had more than 9,000 unprocessed original documents it had received as early as November 2020,” the inspector general wrote. “We found that some of these documents were necessary to establish individuals’ eligibility for benefit payments. Some offices had backlogs of unprocessed applications for new or replacement Social Security cards. One field office had 677 unprocessed applications dated as early as July 2020. We also observed a Social Security card center that had over 9,000 unprocessed applications dated as early as May 2021. As a result, individuals have yet to receive their original documents or Social Security number card.”
Additionally, the inspector general found hundreds of thousands of pieces of undeliverable mail that had been returned to agency offices, “some of which were over one year old.” In some instances, undeliverable mail is supposed to trigger the suspension or termination of a beneficiary’s payments. Many managers responsible for handling the mail told the watchdog that they felt swamped by a massive increase in mail received during the pandemic.
“Approximately 50% of field office managers reported they are overwhelmed by mail duties, and approximately 20% stated they are unable to keep up with mail workloads,” the report stated. “Some office managers also told us they did not have adequate in-person staffing to keep up with mail duties while offices remained closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
At the root of these issues is the fact that the Social Security Administration has no way to measure the flow of mail at its offices and adjust staffing levels to cope with it, the inspector general wrote.
“Without this information, SSA cannot know how much unprocessed mail it has, what is in the mail, or how old the mail is,” the report stated. “In addition, agency leadership is unable to assess staffing needs and distribute workloads. Without an effective system of internal control, there is heightened risk that SSA may lose sensitive documents.”
The inspector general said it will publish a final report on this issues, and other matters related to Social Security’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by the end of the year. But in the meantime, the agency said Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi has ordered a number of changes to better monitor mail flow and has ceased the practice of requiring customers to send the original versions of identifying documents like drivers licenses.
“Upon learning of this issue, the acting commissioner decided to stop requiring the public to mail sensitive documents to us and directed a review of mail processes to implement improvements,” said agency spokesman Mark Hinkle. “We appreciate the Office of Inspector General’s review of this issue.”