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Lights shining brightly at SSA
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About a month ago, I wrote a column about possible declining service at the Social Security Administration. I pointed out that I get frequent emails from readers who complain about overflowing waiting rooms, generally unpleasant surroundings, and overall poor service following a visit to the Social Security office. And I get many more emails complaining about the service, or rather lack of good service, provided at SSA’s 800 number. 

But at the same time, I get occasional emails describing a positive experience with SSA. Still, the condemnations far outweigh the compliments. I wanted to think that this is based on the maxim that folks are more likely to complain about poor service than they are to applaud good service. But I just wasn’t sure.

And then I got an email from a former SSA colleague who recently retired. Sadly, he lambasted his former fellow employees. He told me, “Tom, the lights have gone out at SSA.” That troubled me.

So I decided to poll my readers. I asked people to share their experiences when dealing with SSA — good or bad, or in between. And you responded! I got hundreds of reports. And to be truthful, I stopped reading them after I got to email number 200. I decided that was a good enough sample for my very unscientific survey. And here are the results.

I’m pleased to report that the lights are still on at the Social Security Administration. The favorable reports far outweighed the unfavorable ones — by a wide margin. Of the 200 responses I tabulated, 178 reported generally positive interactions with the agency, while just 22 had gripes of one sort or another. I’ll spend the rest of this column sharing some of your comments.

Here is a typical report from one reader. “My experience with SSA has been nothing but outstanding. From the time I registered for Medicare at age 65 (5 years ago) to the initiation of my Social Security benefits this past May, I’ve dealt with pleasant and knowledgeable people. The written communications I get from SSA are understandable and helpful. I wish our Congress worked as well as SSA has for me!” 

Here is another: “I can report to you that the lights are still on at SSA. When I filed for benefits several months ago, I called for an appointment. I was offered the chance to file over the phone, but I opted to go to my local Social Security office. On the appointed day, I was taken care of after just a short wait. A very knowledgeable person took care of me and answered all my questions. The whole process took less than 45 minutes. It could not have been a more professional experience.”

And one more: “My wife and I have both retired in the last 5 years. Service from our local Social Security office has been OUTSTANDING! They have made suggestions about spousal benefits and delays in taking benefits we would never have considered without their advice. They helped in mitigating Medicare premium penalties that could have arisen from one-time retirement payouts. Professional, proactive, compassionate! I give an A+ rating to those folks!”

One reader even mentioned getting a Social Security clerk who was “young and fun and really knew her stuff.” It’s not too often that you hear government clerks described as “fun!”

Reviews from some readers were mixed. Many Social Security offices got high marks. Some not. One reader experienced the good and bad. When she lived in one part of the country, she went to her local office and found “long long wait lines, hard institutional chairs, and no one to help check us in. When they finally waited on me, they couldn’t find me in the system. Any time I went there, I hated it.” Then she moved to another part of the country and found the local Social Security office to be “a pleasant place with very helpful people.” She described it as a “night and day experience.”

There were mixed reactions to 800 number service. More than a few people complained about long wait times on hold. One reader described it as a “black hole.” Yet the majority of folks praised the service they got once they were connected to an SSA rep. One reader called the help she got very professional and she said applying for her Social Security benefits “was the easiest thing I have ever done.” Yet another reader relayed how easy it was to apply for benefits and complimented the agent who helped him. He called it “incredible service.”

SSA’s online services tended to get very favorable reviews. In fact, of the 200 responses I read, only two reported having issues with the website,

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of SSA services and give the impression that everyone was pleased with the treatment they got. Again, about 10 percent of my respondents were unhappy. But one thing I gathered from my survey responses was that folks who had gripes about SSA services tended to be those who had complicated claims issues or problems with their benefits. For example, several people who filed for disability benefits and were denied wrote to complain about how they felt they were poorly treated. A couple other people got benefits it was later learned they were not due and they were being asked to refund the money. They were not happy campers. 

I went back to my former colleague (the one who told me “the lights have gone out at SSA”) with my survey results. He wasn’t surprised. He said most people have relatively simple Social Security claims situations. “And SSA handles simple issues very well. It’s when things get complicated that I think the agency is dropping the ball.”

Still, it’s hard to argue with the almost 90 percent positive responses I got from my readers. The Social Security Administration is obviously doing something right!

And by the way, thanks to all my readers who responded to my survey. With over 200 emails, I obviously didn’t have anywhere near the space to include comments from the majority of folks who wrote to me. But again, thanks so much.