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June 01, 2009
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Take My $255, Please

My very deepest sympathies go to my friend Neil on the death of his mother, who was 87 years old. Losing a loved one is a traumatic event. It is a time when memories of a life well lived keep jumping out at us at unexpected times and places. We may walk into a closet and find an article of clothing that belonged to our mom. We may have to stop and deal with the flood of memories of seeing that old dress or pair of shoes.

We seek “closure” as the counselor would say but it never quite comes. Over time, however, grief turns to good memories of great times and sometimes of difficult times. Memories evolve into thoughts of legacy and how a departed loved one affected our lives.

The immediate weeks and months after the death of a loved one should be a time of remembrance and a time for peaceful coming to grips with what has happened. It is of course a time to deal with the inevitable crop of end-of-life issues, often involving insurance companies, real-estate transactions, the inevitable horde of orbiting lawyers, and, yes, government agencies.

This article, however, is about one government agency encounter following the death of my friend’s loved one. It is really about a double death — the death of person we love, known in Social Security parlance as a “recipient,” and the death of common sense which results from the blunt trauma injury of crashing into a bureaucracy. It could take the form of a letter to the Commissioner of Social Security which might read something like this:

Dear Commissioner, I want to share with you the story of my recent encounter with the Social Security Administration over the matter of the $255 death benefit claimed as a result of the death of my beloved mother. Mother was many things in life, but you may know her best perhaps as a “recipient.” She was a client of the Social Security Administration, arguably a “customer.” So is my father who is now 90. In the worst of all possible times, immediately following the death of a loved one, our encounter with Social Security required crawling over broken glass. It required an “encounter of the bureaucratic type” which should hardly be cause for additional grief. This is especially true since many of the claimants of the $255 death benefit are themselves frail senior citizens, perhaps with reduced or impaired cognitive abilities.

When things are at their worst for a customer, organizations should be at their very best, at their most sympathetic, and at their greatest simplicity in terms of transactions. Bearing all that in mind, here is what happened when I flew across the country to help my father cope with the many matters resulting from the death of his wife of 65 years. One of those was the Social Security death benefit claim.

First, we found out that a claim had to be made in person. It could not be made online. We noted, ironically, that you could apply for Social Security pension benefits online without ever stepping into the office. We noted that the pension benefits may pay out thousands of dollars a month for decades and it can be done online, at home. For the $255 benefit, however, the process required a personal visit to the Social Security office. Surely, the full weight of the federal government could be somehow brought to bear to make it possible for this claim to be made from the quiet solitude of a grieving person’s home.

In any event, I drove my father to the office where we had the pleasure and privilege of waiting for more than two hours to be helped. Of course during these two hours there were many other people in the office frustrated, sad and worried about the impact of the death of their loved one on benefits. During this period my father and I overheard many people sharing their tragic stories, which of course we found neither therapeutic nor desirable at this particular time.

In any event, after our enjoyable wait we were seen by a very helpful person. She was so helpful that she told us, after various forms were filled out, that we had to come back and visit again. This time we had to bring an original or certified copy of the marriage license back to the Social Security office in order to claim the $255.

Needless to say a marriage of 65 years’ duration, complete with migration from the “old country” to America, is not amenable or consistent with a modern electronic home filing system. After all of that effort, I drove my father back home amidst head shaking and considerable moaning and groaning. Later, while going through a box of photos, I found a weathered original marriage license now in three different pieces reflecting the obvious signs of being 65 years of age.

This was more than twice the age of the very nice clerk. She informed us that the marriage license was a requirement, because, after all, we may be claiming the $255 for a 65-year marriage that never really existed. After all, an affidavit signed under penalty of perjury, on behalf of a grieving 87-year-old widower was not enough.

Yet again, we journeyed to the Social Security office, marriage license in hand and presented it for the necessary processing. I am sure that the death benefit will appear in a timely manner and that my father will come to forget the memories of our encounter, as well as my repeated offer to reduce the intentional infliction of pain and suffering by paying the $255 myself.

I do have another well-intended suggestion, dear commissioner, besides the automated processing option, to help make my father’s and my experience one of the last such painful ones in Social Security’s long history.  It would be a recommendation that rules and processes be better mixed with the need for simplicity, tolerance and understanding.

Perhaps a “process improvement seminar” could be held to review this kind of experience and look for ways to make it simpler — such as submitting online claims for the $255. Perhaps accepting a sworn affidavit, even one signed off electronically, would be within the realm of scientific and bureaucratic possibility. I would recommend that the facilitator of the session, which should be mandatory for all higher-level Social Security administrators, be at least 87 years old. I further recommend that the seminar last several days and that it begin with an unanticipated two-hour period of waiting before anything happens.

Finally, to get credit for attendance at this mandatory seminar, perhaps connected to any pay increases, all attendees should be required to return after several days with an original or certified copy of their birth certificate and a physician’s note to establish that they were actually alive. Thank you for your attention.

A friend of the HR Doctor’s

In life, and even in bureaucracies, be at your best when things are at their worst.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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