SSA takes state furloughs to Congress

Tuesday - 7/27/2010, 9:39am EDT

Michael Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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By Meg Beasley
Federal News Radio

The Social Security Administration provides direction and funding for state disability programs, so why are states laying these workers off?

"It just doesn't make any sense at all," Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, told the Federal Drive's Tom Temin and Amy Morris today. "The silliness of it is that we just cut the funding off. So [states] are hurting themselves in these bad economic times in two ways. Their employees are getting less money, less salary and paying less taxes. And people who should be getting disability benefits from the federal government are getting them more slowly and their tapping other state resources while their waiting for a disability decision."

California was the first state to furlough disability workers 18 months ago, and that caught the agency off guard when it became a widespread practice, he says.

Astrue estimates that at any given time 10 to 15 states have some sort of furlough or other restriction on SSA's ability to provide services.

"It's been almost 2 years now and it's time to do something," he says.

That something is proposed legislation to prohibit states from enacting freezes or furloughs of state disability workers without authorization from the commissioner. Astrue says this proposal is the most substantial piece of legislation by SSA in a long time, though it is not unusual for the agency to make small procedural submissions.

Some have suggested full federalization of SSA workers but Astrue says this option would be much more expensive than the current framework. It would mean converting all state employees to federal employees, adding about 16,000 to the current federal SSA workforce of about 67,000. Between increases in salaries, federal employees make more than their state counterparts, and interrupted work, Congress has estimated the transition would cost $3.8 billion over the first four years.

The current practice of providing federal funding and guidance to state workers is the most practical plan as long as states abide by the agreements.

"If they are accepting a very large amount of money from us it seems quite reasonable to say that you can't impede our work without our approval since we're paying the full frame," Astrue says.

While most state officials are civil in negotiations with SSA, Astrue says some have been combative and even refused to speak to SAA representatives.

Now that the legislation has been proposed and endorsed by the administration, Astrue says the hard work of rallying Congressional support and finding co-sponsors beings.

"We think we're going to get a fair amount of support on this now we've got to turn that talk into actual action," he says.

Meg Beasley is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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