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Social Security chief targets telephone woes

Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn King vowed Tuesday to sharply lower the frequency of busy signals that callers get when they dial her agency's toll-free line. In the last two months, up to 80 percent of callers have gotten a busy signal when they dialed the Social Security number. King wants to cut that busy signal rate to 35 percent by the end of the year.

"What I really want to do is to make sure that on peak days .


. that we can accommodate most of the people that are calling in," King told reporters.

Congressional critics say the new toll-free line, which the Social Security Administration began using in October 1988, has depersonalized service from the agency. Today, the commissioner is to face a House subcommittee to explain the high rate of busy signals and offer solutions.

To lower the busy rate, King is encouraging beneficiaries to call in the morning, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., when the phone lines are not tied up. The agency soon will launch a public service campaign to promote morning calls.

In addition, King said she has authorized overtime for workers and has created squads of workers to handle calls during peak periods.

She also said Social Security staffers who answer the toll-free line are being told to give callers the number to their local office if they want it. The local number has been removed from many phone books and replaced with the toll-free number: 1-800-234-5772.

Some critics have complained that staffers working on the toll-free line have given out incorrect information. But King reported that a recent survey found that 82 percent of the callers who used the line said they received service that was "good" or "very good."

"Social Security used to pride itself on face-to-face service, because you could always walk into one of our 1,300 field offices and see a human being, a live person who could help you. Now we promise you person-to-person service on the telephone along with face-to-face service," King said.

On a related matter, King said she will send management teams to Social Security offices around the country to determine where more employees and equipment are needed. She plans to add 400 employees to the neediest of the agency's field offices.

The agency's staff was sharply cut back during the Reagan administration. It now has 63,000 full-time employees.