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Colleagues praise me & berate me
Opinion

There are about 60,000 Social Security Administration employees around the country. More than a few of them read my column. And I’ve learned over the years that they have differing opinions of the job I do. Today, I will share a couple of recent emails, voicing opposite reactions to my column.

Q: I am a field rep for SSA. I want to tell you what a fantastic job you do. I have saved your columns over the years, and I frequently refer to them as a supplement to POMS and our other training materials. Keep up the good work!

A: Thanks so much for your kind words. There are two things you mentioned that I need to explain to my readers. The first is your reference to “POMS.” That stands for Program Operations Manual System. It is essentially the bible for SSA employees that spells out how every single Social Security rule and regulation should be administered and implemented.

It’s called a “manual system” because back in my day (I worked with the SSA from 1973 until 2005), those guidelines were printed on paper and stored in 3-ring binders. Each of us claims technicians had about 20 such binders in a bookshelf behind our desks. And we would spend an hour almost every morning before the office doors opened reading and then filing updates to our POMS manuals.

Gosh, that all seems so archaic. Today, of course, everything is digitized and online. In fact, anyone can access POMS. Go to www.socialsecurity.gov and near the top of the home page, open up the “Menu” icon and then scroll down near the bottom of the page that pops up and click on “Program Rules.” You will find POMS under “Employee Operating Instructions.”

The other thing I want to talk about is your job title. How does it feel to be one of a dying breed? Let me explain to my readers what I mean. Before the internet, and even before SSA had a national 800 number, the agency prided itself on its one-to-one personal service. Not only were there Social Security offices in almost every decent-sized town in the country, but also we took that service on the road. And the employees who did that were called “field representatives.”

Some of my fondest memories of my early career with SSA came from working as a field rep. For example, while working out of the Everett, Washington, Social Security office, I would take a ferry each week to an island in Puget Sound and set up shop for a day at the local senior citizens center. And then, a couple days later, I would drive up to a small mountain town in the Cascades and become “Mr. Social Security” to the local residents.

The advent of online services and nationwide calling centers greatly diminished the need for SSA to send representatives to these remote outposts. So “field reps” are the dinosaurs of SSA. But it’s good to know that at least

one of you is still around. And again, thanks for the kind words. Now pay attention to what another SSA rep has to say about me.

Q: I work in a local Social Security office in Texas and I have a couple bones to pick with you. First of all, stop referring to us as “clerks.” We are not clerks. That is a demeaning term. We are claims representatives and service representatives. Second, please stop bashing us. Why do you always believe people when they say they get misinformation from us? I will bet that most of the time people get good service and correct answers from SSA representatives. It’s just that the laws are so complicated, they have a hard time understanding what we are telling them.

A: When I use the term “clerk,” I certainly don’t mean it in any kind of derogatory way. I think of it as a generic term for someone who works in a place of business. And it’s a word most of my readers understand, as opposed to referring to claims representatives and service representatives or any of the other job titles one might find working in a Social Security office. Sometimes I say clerk; sometimes I say agent; sometimes I say representative. They are terms for an office worker that I use interchangeably.

And I do not necessarily always believe readers when they tell me they got misinformation from an SSA representative. At least not at first. But usually after exchanging an email or two, I can tell when they have gotten incorrect information. And when they do, I will say so in my column. If I’m not sure, I will frequently begin an answer saying something like this: “Either you misunderstood what the SSA rep was trying to tell you, or you did get misinformation.”

 Believe me, as a proud SSA retiree, someone who spent 32 years helping tens of thousands of people get the benefits they deserve, it pains me to hear so many reports of misinformation. In fact, I used to be very defensive about this. In the early days of writing this column, I just found it hard to believe that people could be led astray by SSA representatives.

But if you could see all the emails I get from people who are taking issue with something they were told by SSA

clerks (there I go again using that term), you would be amazed -- or saddened.

Having said that, I will make this point. About a year ago, following a whole spate of emails I was getting from people complaining about being misinformed by SSA personnel, I conducted a survey of my readers. Here is what I learned. SSA employees do absolutely outstanding work when it comes to routine matters. And the good news is that most people have rather routine interactions with the agency. Things like filing a simple retirement claim or getting a replacement Social Security or Medicare card are handled with incredible efficiency.

But when things get a little complicated, then sadly, SSA agents start to fall down on the job. And the classic example of that is in the implementation of Social Security “maximizing strategies.” It appears as though SSA has really dropped the ball when it comes to training its employees on these procedures. Every single week, I get emails from retirees who (and I’ve been able to verify this) were misinformed about how the so-called “file and restrict” strategies work.