Customer Support Triage: Why do we ignore its importance?

If you had the honor to talk to me in late 2021, you might have known how happy I was to quit an underpaying job in private higher education to obtain my goal of working for the federal government. The premise of my job–certifying students’ semester enrollment so they could be paid their Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits–wasn’t the problem. The problem was I didn’t like my direct boss, like many Americans. I didn’t like the lack of a built-in career ladder for that role; I couldn’t take all the years I spent certifying these benefits to move up to a coaching or supervisory role. Said boss wasn’t moving out of her role and presenting an opportunity to take over, to do it better. These things left me stuck with two realities. Sticking it out as an underemployed person, being paid roughly $43,000 a year, felt like earning my two graduate degrees were a complete waste of time. The second reality was to find something–at that point, anything–that brought me up a ladder rung. I didn’t care what the ladder looked like. Rickety? I’ll break a leg, but it might be worth it. Would I climb it blindly now? Yep. How much worse could it be over being paid crap wages again and a long commute to a sketchy part of Phoenix on my in-person days? Was it propped up artificially by something I might discover at a later point in time? Maybe, but tomorrow me could handle it.

Gambling with my career future turned out to be more problematic than I expected.

The temporary elation I felt about having finally “made it” into my dream work industry wore off quickly. Like a piece of fast fashion, nothing about the opportunity felt made to last.

Not everyone will feel this way, so in sharing my sentiments about working for Social Security Administration, please understand that some people love what they do to serve the agency and its customers. If they don’t love what they do, many are willing to suck it up for the opportunity to be paid well. An an example, my career ladder at SSA was GS-9/11/12. Had I done well, the first step at GS-12 in our local area pays $86, 343 effective January of this year. If you have expensive dreams, a number of dependents, or constantly feed lifestyle creep, that amount of money doesn’t go far. Being who I am though, I choose to value dreams and happiness over the prestige of being a GS-12 at one of the local SSA offices. (Over time, I can hit this career milestone somewhere else, so I am not giving up the opportunity, but looking at where it presents itself.)

A GS-12 at SSA was not worth it, to me.

I was at odds with the way the agency is ran, and it was hurting me as someone who values being a working professional. When I first started applying for federal jobs in 2012, SSA was not high on the list. Even when I wavered about whether federal work would serve my longterm career interests and I moved to sporadically applying to federal jobs, I couldn’t shake my feelings about SSA. Being a rather uninformed person without a lot of contacts who were collecting Social Security, I didn’t have a lot to go on other than gut feeling it was the wrong workplace for me. Fast forward to the 2021 version of me, tired of being underemployed and willing to give it a chance, I put on some heavy blinders to receive a pay bump. I stuck it out a little over a year and three months, and I have no desire to go back to the agency. I am outlining my problems with the current operation from my narrow perspective; some of what I see as problems are, in another’s eyes, positives. There are many opinions on where we should focus governmental funds, who is deserving of help, how they should be served, and so on. I cannot appease everyone with my opinions, nor do I expect to do so, but here are my problems with SSA as the agency stands today.

America has a difficult relationship with SSA spending, and it shows when you work there.

Spending reveals itself in how work is managed and how things are maintained. Based on staffing levels, not only at the agency but from what I was told from how understaffed Disability Determination Services (DDS) was also undermanned, it was important for me to pre-interview my contacts and if it was determined they didn’t met eligibility standards, I could take an abbreviated application. (What would have been more useful was having a consistent and effective pre-interview phone call with interested applicants and let them take an abbreviated application at that point-of-contact. No one should be making an appointment a month or two down the road when they could be told in 10 minutes they aren’t eligible!) Each person I could technically deny, whether he or she had an insufficient work history to quality for SSDI or received too much income/support or had too many resources to qualify for SSI, meant my time was freed up to serve someone already receiving benefits. My “free” time was then available to stay on top of incoming paystubs to keep SSI recipients’ payments as accurate as possible; I worked (more towards the end of my time there) learning the SSI overpayment process; or the agency then had me at its disposable to cover front-end interviews for Social Security Number cards when it was short-staffed and in-person activity was high and they’d pull any person not interviewing or on phones to clear the lobby.

Aside from the workload feeling untenable as a trainee, seeing the lack of investment in the agency and the trust of its people additionally felt awful. Simple things like waiting for the agency to repair a broken parking lot gate arm so as to prevent the employee lot from being used by customers or how office supplies are locked up and only managers are allowed to distribute Post-Its. Even the two fridges in the communal break room, as I learned, were purchased from employees’ shared contributions. The agency also did not pay for the microwave, water cooler, or coffee machines. People donated what they had in excess or chipped in to make these modern conveniences available.

From my educational background perspective, I don’t feel it makes sense to treat the agency’s lobby as an emergency room of sorts. The walk-in service is grossly problematic over the inconvenience sometimes seen in appointment based services. People would gripe constantly about having to wait out in the cold but worst still waiting in the summer. Who wants to bake in the 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit sun? The lobbies are small, so outdoor waits are normal. Looking back, I think our lobby capacity was something like 53 persons. There are no outdoor shade structures, benches, or seats for clients to utilize. Not surprising given that over the years across the United States more and more places pare back or making rest structures uncomfortable so as to deter the chronically unhoused from resting there. An increased ability to utilize online services doesn’t mean all persons who are capable of taking advantage of those opportunities will do so, which would reduce the delays experienced by persons lacking internet access and allow the agency to better serve non-English/limited English speakers who cannot use or don’t fully understand our English-based applications.

In advocating particularly for our limited/non-English speaking and deaf customers, the lack of planning appointments out properly means that these seem to be the groups most disadvantaged by policy. I was told my goal was to take a disability claim in an hour and a half. Anyone belonging to one of these groups needs more time because there is an intermediary serving as our translator. Instead, the goal was to pack an appointment day with 4 disability claims. The most I was ever able to manage was 3 appointments, and none of those days went smoothly. Some people need an SSDI application, an SSI application, a representative payee application, and have a household with 5-10 individuals. That’s a lot of development needed. Oh, and you want to add a translator to one of those appointments? Six hours of the day eaten up by those generic pre-determined time slots. Take away 2 15-minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch. There is only a one hour leeway for mistakes/miscommunication/working around computer failures/planning ahead of the appointments to help them all run more smoothly. (And there are days that free hour is just gone if there’s an employee meeting that could have been better served by an email.) I wasn’t good at handling the stress of it all, feeling like my soul was being crushed left and right. There were a lot of weeks I despised my job, and some days those policies were exacerbated by hostile clients. Ultimately, I decided it was in my best interest to leave so I could go back to feeling like myself.

Not everyone gets to walk away like I did. I feel bad for those clients I really wanted to help because the systems in place don’t have their best interests at heart.

Our nation’s workforce with the goal of maximizing financial gains is designed to keep a lot of individuals with disabilities out of the workforce or in a state of underemployment, and if they don’t have family or friends to support them, they need financial assistance through SSDI or SSI to get by. Living in the United States means confronting this system that devalues people and then is left wondering why no one wants to work in that role/agency/industry or stay that along. We’re tired. Seeing the inequality is one thing, but also helping support it in some way is demoralizing. People most reliant on community support are paying the high cost of being served in a way that doesn’t address their unique circumstances. They’re the ones most in need of appointments built around when they can take time off from work, can access public transportation, or a suitable friend or family member can take them to the local field office. People are inhumanely waiting outdoor in these long lines, with no access to a restroom, until they can get in the building and get an appointment number. Some are even too nervous to use the restroom while waiting in the lobby for fear of being passed over and having to wait longer. They are the ones that would come to the interview window and ask permission to go relieve themselves, adding more time to a system that’s been clocking their wait time since they got an appointment number. (Yes, their lobby wait time is measured. The length of their phone or in-person visit is tracked. If you’re a non-responder, yep, that’s recorded, too.) Getting back to the heart and soul of service though, some people deserve more help than others and I couldn’t keep fighting for the system that exacerbates the problems of the poor and disabled, treating them like a homogenous group.

Why should the American worker whose family is reliant on her staying employed in her low wage part time job, leaving her little time to improve her English speaking skills, get the same hour and a half long phone interview slot for her child’s SSI claim as the recent college graduate who has internet access and a computer, but didn’t feel compelled to complete his disability application online in spite of being fully able to do so?

She needs the support and he’s choosing to consume it.

Customer support triage is not impossible in this situation, but it does require ignoring some rules we’ve commonly accepted in life. In this case, we need to teach that supporting the most underserved in our community means addressing equity over equality. We don’t all need the same support, so it should be funneled towards where it is needed most and the frontline workers assisting them need to have their needs attended to as well so they can perform to the best of their capabilities. Adjudicators need permission to schedule longer interviews, when necessary, and that can be planned out at first contact. These centers that have disproportionate queues should have the chance to explore appointment days again, like what was implemented during the pandemic. If someone misses their appointment, all the appointments that want to move up and get seen earlier get the chance to do so, giving some freebie slots in the afternoon for the occasional walk-in service. I don’t feel these are difficult things to ask for, and perhaps, if given the chance, might do some real good to turn around SSA’s image and rapport with its customers and employees alike.

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