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CCH® PAYROLL — 04/12/11

SSA suspends earnings statements in cost-cutting measure

In a budget cutting move, the Social Security Administration has suspended the mailing of earnings statements to workers. The suspension applies to both the Annual Earnings Statement that is automatically provided to all workers age 25 or older as well as to statements that are requested, either in writing via Form SSA-7004 or online at the SSA’s website, www.ssa.gov. The earnings statement shows the amount of wages and self-employment income credited to a worker’s account and the number of credits that have been earned. Since October 1999, workers have been receiving these statements on an annual basis approximately three months prior to their birth month. A spokesperson for the SSA told CCH that it has cost the agency approximately $70 to $72 million annually over the past three years to provide these statements.

The SSA’s decision to suspend the provision of these statements was made with little fanfare or notice. Visitors to the agency’s website only learn about the suspension when they click on a link to “Request a Social Security Statement” that is buried under a link to estimate retirement benefits. After requesting the earnings statement, a window appears that states, “In light of the current budget situation, we have suspended the Request a Social Security Statement service. You may be able to estimate your retirement benefit using our online Retirement Estimator.” However, the online Retirement Estimator requires an individual to know how much he or she earned in “covered” employment during the prior year. Moreover, the estimator does not show the amount of income that has actually been credited to a worker’s account and the number of credits that have been earned.

According to an “emergency message” that originated with the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Office of Public Service and Operations Support, and sent to all field offices, the suspension was effective on March 29, 2011. The emergency message, in part, states:

“Effective immediately, SSA is suspending the mailing of all Social Security Statements because of the current budget situation. The online service for requesting a Social Security Statement has also been disabled and the public can no longer use the Form SSA-7004 to request a Statement. In addition, we have taken action to request deactivation of the current National 800 Number Network (N8NN) automated application, “Request for SSA-7004.””

The message goes on to state that with respect to Form SSA-7004, it would be removed from “all public areas,_ would not be mailed to the public, and no requests could be forwarded to the Office of Central Operations.

Is the suspension legal?

The annual mailing of the earnings statement complies with Social Security Act 1143(c) (42 USC 1320b-13(c)), which requires the SSA to mail these statements to every eligible individual who is not already receiving benefits under Title II. An “eligible individual_ is defined as one who (a) has a Social Security account number, (b) has attained age 25 or over, and (c) has wages or net earnings from self-employment. There is no provision in 1143 for suspending the annual mailing of these statements.

The agency spokesperson told CCH that the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel and the Government Accountability Office’s Comptroller General both have held that agencies that reasonably anticipate a shortfall in their appropriations have both “the authority and the duty to curtail or discontinue programs and activities, including activities required by statute._ In a written statement, the spokesperson cited the following in support of this position:

“Attorney General’s Authority to Reprogram Funds for the United States Marshals Service to Avoid Deficiencies, 4B U.S. Op. Off. Legal Counsel 701,*3, n.7, 1980 WL 20974 (June 20, 1980); The Honorable John D. Dingell, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 64 Comp. Gen. 728, 729 (1985) (holding that the Anti-Deficiency Act requires agencies to expend their fiscal year appropriations at a rate that would prevent the exhaustion of their funds before the end of the fiscal year); Matter of: St. Elizabeth’s Hospital –District of Columbia Patients, 61 Comp. Gen. 661, 663 (1982) (holding that a Federal hospital whose appropriation is exhausted must suspend operations in order to avoid a criminal Anti-Deficiency Act violation, despite the hospital’s statutory obligation to admit qualifying patients).”

Earnings information available in “urgent need” cases

According to the agency spokesperson, any individual who has an “urgent need” can still obtain the earnings information that had been provided by the earnings statement, citing a provision of the SSA’s internal operating manual, the Program Operations Manual System at POMS GN 03320.001E.3. That section explains that if an individual visits a Social Security field office and states that the have an “urgent need” for the information, the field office should provide the information by using any online query it has available. Under these circumstances, the field office is instructed to accept the individual’s statement that he or she has an urgent need.

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