Starting this month, the public will have less face time with the Social Security Administration.
Effective Monday, Social Security offices will close a half hour earlier, staying open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Starting Jan. 2, offices will close at noon every Wednesday.
According to a statement from the Social Security Administration (SSA), employees will continue to work their regular hours. While the offices are closed to the public, staffers will conduct in-person interviews and will process claims allowing them to complete those tasks without being paid overtime. The SSA says it can't afford to pay overtime with its new budget from Congress.
The change means patrons will have 22 fewer hours a month to visit an office in person.
"Every time I come it's full," said Jan Anderson, a Salt Lake City resident who visits the downtown SSA office a few times each year. About a half hour after the office opened on Tuesday, Anderson sat waiting with rows of customers.
Her disabled son has been receiving Social Security since he turned 18, and her granddaughter, also disabled, receives benefits as well.
Anderson said she is grateful for the help and the "gracious" customer service she's received, but she struggles with the limited parking and the waits of about two hours each visit. For these reasons and others, she said, people have to make a "great effort" to get to the office.
The Salt Lake City office averages about 220 visitors a day, according to Gina Ramer, regional communications director for the SSA. Of those, she said, most visitors are seeking a new or replacement Social Security card.
In Utah, more than 300,000 retired workers, disabled workers, widowers, spouses and children were receiving Social Security benefits as of last year.
A change like this is to be expected, said Michael Jensen, president of the Utah Aging Alliance and an elder law attorney. He said there's only so much money to go around.
"To have everything that we've always had without having any consequences on the budget is just wrong…It's one more step toward trying to reduce costs," he said. "Eventually we adjust to that and find out 'Gee, things aren't so bad after all.'"
Most services don't require a visit to a local office, the SSA statement notes. Applying for retirement, disability or Medicare benefits, for example, can be done by phone at 1-800-772-1213 or at www.ssa.gov.
Telephone access is available for the deaf and hard of hearing at 1-800-325-0778, and there's also a website for Spanish speakers.
Jensen said as a senior citizen himself, and in dealing with the elderly through his work, he's found that the majority of seniors have access to the Internet either directly or indirectly through family members. "It's really not that foreign," he said.
"I would rather have us have money to provide needed benefits than to pay overtime to workers because people won't go online," Jensen added.
But LaVerna Jordan-Harding from West Valley City, who was also waiting in the office on Tuesday, said she tried twice to access services via the Internet before coming to the office that day. She just couldn't do it. "If you're not computer savvy it's not as easy online," she said.
She thinks the decreased hours are a "horrible" change. "I guess [with] the government you have to do what you have to do," she said.
Alan Ormsby, state director for AARP Utah, sympathizes with Jordan-Harding's experience.
"I do think it's problematic for the Social Security Administration to assume that everyone can do everything they need to over the Internet," he said, adding that he believes the office is underestimating the need for field-office visits.
The decrease in hours, he added, is an indication of a larger problem.
The AARP, along with nearly 30 other concerned organizations, sent a letter to the White House last week requesting adequate funding for the SSA. The letter outlined recent cuts, including the announcement of decreased hours, and asked that a minimum of $12.3 billion be included in the president's FY 2014 budget for the SSA's administrative costs.
Ormsby said as more and more people enter retirement and have questions and concerns, the resources for that aid continue to disappear. He said the situation is frustrating.
"We can't predict how serious the problems will be," Ormsby said. "Without adequate funding, the Social Security office won't be available to deliver high-quality customer service."
Anderson said she will learn to work around the change. She understands that the government is trying to budget, she said, but feels cutting services from people who are already struggling is a "sad thing to do."
At a glance
Effective Monday, the Salt Lake City Social Security office and offices nationwide will be open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. a reduction of 30 minutes each weekday. And beginning Jan. 2, 2013, offices will close to the public at noon every Wednesday.