On December 8, 2021, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to the heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, and the U.S. General Services Administration expressing concern regarding in-person staffing levels at Federal offices and requesting information on their return to work policies.
“I am concerned about the impact that the continued closure of Federal offices throughout the country is having on Americans, particularly our most vulnerable citizens, who rely on in-person services,” Leader McCarthy wrote. “The inability for the American people we all serve to receive timely and complete service from the Federal government is unacceptable.”
We did not receive a response.
Remote work, school, and life were meant to be temporary solutions until a firm one – safe and effective vaccines and reduced level of danger from the virus – were available.
According to a White House memo issued on November 24, 2021, 92% of Federal employees have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination dose. A large portion of adults in the U.S. are fully vaccinated. At this point, based on the data we have gathered over the last two years on the effects of the virus – including the Omicron variant – as well as the efficacy of the vaccines, there is no reason American citizens should not be receiving adequate service from Federal employees due to unnecessary remote work policies.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening.
We spoke to Kaitlyn Owen, a mom and teacher in Kern County, California, who has been attempting to receive services from the Social Security Administration (SSA) for months – to no avail.
Kaitlyn has health insurance through her employer, but recently got married and would like to change her name. Given her husband is self-employed and does not have health insurance, updating her name and ensuring her health insurance is covered is of utmost importance.
Knowing the offices are majority working remotely, Kaitlyn has called every single day, multiple times a day, to get answers. The phone calls would never go through to anyone – one time, Kaitlyn told us, she waited on the line for over an hour before the call got disconnected.
“I have a classroom of students, so it’s not like I can just sit there on hold all day hoping that they answer,” she said. One day, Kaitlyn decided to leave work early (not before finding coverage for her students) and go to the physical office location. “I thought maybe there will at least be someone there to answer questions.”
There were multiple other people waiting outside the office when she arrived. A security guard was outside the building restricting access inside, “unless you have an appointment.” Kaitlyn wondered how she was even supposed to schedule an appointment if no one picked up the phone.
A lady in line said she did in fact have an appointment (one she only received after calling for 6 months straight). The woman went in and exited a few minutes later. At this point, Kaitlyn knew there was no one else inside being helped, and hoped this signified the rest in line could be helped as well. Another resident in line was seeking information to finalize paperwork for her deceased son.
“It was just unconscionable to me that there was a person in there who was just refusing to help, and instead was doing paper work and taking a lunch break, according to the security guard,” Kaitlyn said.
“I am personally frustrated by this being a teacher, where despite not caring so much about the covid exposure, I don’t have that option to not go into work. It’s ridiculous that people are still sitting at home unwilling to do their jobs.”
It is important to note that the local field office staff who are working in person have been doing their best, despite the restraints on their ability to serve the public. This is a top-down issue.
Kaitlyn headed to Leader McCarthy’s local district office to seek help. While talking to staff, she waited on hold again for 53 minutes before someone finally picked up. And now here comes the next issue.
The instructions Kaitlyn was given over the phone were to “present” all materials (like a driver’s license) to SSA – no copies allowed. “How can I present these documents to an employee if the offices are closed?” Kaitlyn asked. “Mailing in my driver’s license for an undisclosed period of time was not on the table.” And for obvious reasons.
Kaitlyn ended up mailing in an original certified copy of her marriage license (after paying for another copy since she was unsure if she’d ever receive the original back). She has called for weeks to follow up, but nothing comes of her efforts.
All the while, Kaitlyn isn’t sure where her health insurance coverage stands. She went to her online health insurance portal to find it was suspended because her name does not match her ID.
“I am not sure what would happen if I tried to go to a doctor’s office right now. But it shouldn’t be this complicated to get answers. There is no accountability.”
She is right, and after a months-long effort filled with uncertainty, Kaitlyn finally received her updated SSA card.
Our office has received countless calls and emails from constituents unable to receive services from various government agencies. For example, here is what another constituent is facing with another agency, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS):
“I am writing because I don’t know what else to do, and someone recommended contacting my local congressman. I have been waiting for almost a year for my 2020 tax refund and every time I call, it’s a different excuse. My husband passed away in 2020 so they said it takes longer to process. I spoke to someone in December 2021 and they said a manager was going to process it and to give it 10 days. Here I am in January 2022. I called them back and they said whoever I spoke to lied to me and they have no idea when I will see my refund for 2020. I am almost through my complete savings and could really use my refund.”
Another constituent contacted our office similarly looking for their tax refund after paying his employees through the pandemic from his own pocket. A mom in the district has been trying for two years to update her daughter’s name from her birth name to her adopted one so she can get her driver’s license. SSA asked her to mail in both her own original birth certificate and her daughter’s, as well as her own SSA card – which she is understandably not willing to do.
This is completely unacceptable. Federal workers are paid by these very citizens’ tax dollars.
SSA recently said they planned to bring employees back on March 30th. Unfortunately those deadlines hold little weight, given the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most SSA workers, says the March 30th return is “subject to changes in pandemic conditions and further negotiations with agency components.”
It is time for the Biden administration to wake up to the uncertainty and challenges our fellow citizens are facing and expire remote work so this case work can be completed in a timely and effective manner.
All Americans deserve to engage in the activities these constituents are trying to do – to get married and receive the benefit of shared health insurance, to turn 16 and drive on their own, to selflessly support friends in times of need. The last thing they deserve is to be hurt or restricted because their federal government isn’t being held accountable. Or worse – not even bothering to care.