The federal government soon may have trouble supplying the people necessary to help aging boomers with Social Security retirement and disability benefits concerns.

The Social Security Administration is predicting that 44% of its workers could retire by 2016.

“Because retirements will occur among the agency’s most experienced staff, this will have a serious impact on field offices’ institutional knowledge,” warned Barbara Bovbjerg, a U.S. Government Accountability Office director, on Thursday at a hearing organized by the Senate Finance Committee.

The SSA plans to hire 2,350 new employees this fiscal year for regional and field office operations, but getting the experience needed to function independently usually takes 2 to 3 years, Bovbjerg testified, according to a written version of her testimony.

The number of employees at the 1,300 SSA field offices fell 7.1% between 2005 and 2007, to 26,743, and the offices managed to increase the amount of work completed only because productivity increased 4.9%, Bovbjerg testified.

SSA staffers and customers are making more use of the Internet, and SSA workers are deferring what they see as relatively low priority work, such as reviews to see whether people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are still eligible for benefits, Bovbjerg testified.

Although efforts to set priorities may help the staffers get urgent work done, putting off the reviews might reduce the likelihood that the government will recover erroneous payments, Bovbjerg testified.

Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said telephone service at the SSA field offices already shows signs of severe problems.

The “GAO found inadequate telephone service in 13 of the 21 field offices that it examined,” Baucus said in a prepared statement. “In two of the offices, they did not answer the phones at all. My staff found that many Montanans who tried to phone the field offices got busy signals for weeks. In desperation, these Montanans gave up trying to telephone the local field offices. They drove hundreds of miles to the offices and back.”

Many people who do travel to SSA offices have to wait about 2 to 4 hours for service, Baucus said.

Congress needs to provide at least $240 million more SSA funding than President Bush has requested to help the SSA do its job, Baucus said.