Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) was critical of comments made by Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue at an April 23 congressional committee hearing in which the Commissioner suggested that it would be difficult to increase the number of Administrative Law Judges and support staff at the Buffalo Hearing Office because of insufficient available office space.
Just last week Congressman Higgins and Senator Hillary Clinton wrote letters to the Commissioner insisting on more Administrative Law Judges in the Buffalo-area hearing office. The Buffalo-area office service area includes: Erie, Chautauqua, Niagara, Genesee, Ontario, Monroe, and Cattaraugus counties. According to March 2008 statistics, it takes 669 days (nearly two years) for the average Western New Yorker to have their SSA case heard and processed in the Buffalo Hearing Office and each Administrative Law Judge in Buffalo has an average caseload of 895 SSD applicants.
“Persons with disabilities are waiting two to three years for their case to be heard and the Commissioner is worried about office space,” said Congressman Higgins. “We need the Social Security Administration to re-think their priorities.”
The Social Security Administration has announced 135 Administrative Law Judge appointments in Fiscal Year 2008. Ten have been assigned to New York: 3 in New York City, 2 in Queens, 3 in Syracuse, and 2 in Albany. No new judges have been assigned to Buffalo even though the backlog has been well-documented by the Social Security Administration itself.
“If the problem is office space, I would be happy to find them available space in downtown Buffalo tomorrow,” Higgins added, pointing out that according to a Militello Realty report on downtown Buffalo property, as of January 779,228 square feet of Class A office space was vacant in the immediate downtown area.
Congressman Higgins noted that staffing shortages aren’t exclusive to the Administrative Law Judges. Staffing at Western New York field offices have decreased substantially – by approximately 170 employees - over the past 25 years, even though the need for services has increased.
The Congressman has long supported increased funding for the Social Security Administration. In January, Congressman Higgins introduced H.R. 5110, the Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act which if enacted would provide Members of Congress with detailed information on the operation and staffing of Social Security offices in their districts and around the country. Members of Congress should have ready access to this type of information, not only because it is exactly the type of information necessary to measure the effectiveness of government agencies, but also because when citizens aren’t treated properly at their local Social Security office, they immediately reach out to their local Member of Congress for expedited assistance.
“The hard-working people of Western New York who paid into the Social Security system deserve better treatment from their government,” said Congressman Higgins. “We are talking about people here, not numbers, - people who deserve an answer, one way or another, so they can plan for their future and live each day without the fear and frustration these backlogs create. An immediate alleviation of these caseloads is essential.”