Social Security and You: My First Day on the Job
I've been writing this column and answering people's questions about Social Security for more than 20 years. And more often than not, I've been answering the same questions over and over again. And I really don't mind that because I understand there are always new people reading this column who haven't seen the answers before. Other people have been reading the column for a long time, but finally, their Social Security times has come, and they can't remember how I answered a certain question in the past.
So, I get it. My role is to go over this stuff again and again so that, eventually, everyone who needs to know about Social Security understands how the program affects them. But every once in a while, I like to take a break from that routine and instead share a few stories from my long career as a Social Security Administration employee. And today, here is one of those stories.
In 1973, I was a brand-new SSA employee assigned to my very first Social Security office. It was a recently opened branch office in the tiny farming community of Litchfield, Illinois. At the time, the office had all of five employees. I would be number six. There was a manager, two claims-taking personnel (I would be one of those), a teletype operator (does anyone remember teletype machines?) and two clerical employees.
Trying to impress my new boss, I showed up early on my first day. Just before the office was scheduled to open, the senior claims representative and the branch manager were walking in the employee entrance. It was a heavy metal door -- and a gust of wind came up and slammed the door onto the hand of the claims rep. There were screams! There was blood! There was pandemonium!
The manager turned to me and said, "Are you Tom -- the new guy?" I nodded rather sheepishly. And then he said, "Well, you're in charge. I've got to get Wanda to the hospital!" As they were heading back out the door, he saw the frightened look on my face. "Don't worry," he said, "this is a small office. Nothing unusual ever happens here."
Five minutes later, one of the clericals unlocked the front door to the office. About a half-dozen people filed in, including a very demonstrative old man who marched right up to the front desk and barked out, "I demand to see the manager!" The receptionist explained that the manager was called away on an emergency. But this didn't deter the very determined old goat. He said, "Well, someone must be in charge, and I demand to talk to that person." The receptionist looked back at me and said, "Mr. Margenau, can you help?"
I was still shaking from the door-slamming injury incident and was nervously setting up my desk -- unpacking a little box of personal effects I had brought into the office. But I mustered up what little courage I could and walked up to the front desk. "Hi, I'm Tom Margenau," I stammered. I was about to explain to him that not only was this my very first day in this office but it was also my very first day working for the Social Security Administration (not counting the four-month training class from which I had just graduated). But before I could do that, he jabbed an angry finger in my chest and blurted out, "If you're the guy in charge, I've got a bone to pick with you!"
The teletypist came up to me and whispered in my ear: "Why don't you take him back to the boss's office." And away we went. So, there I was, all of 10 minutes into my first day on the job, and I was sitting in the manager's office about to get an earful from a very irate customer!
It turns out the guy was upset because he got a letter from the office -- and the letter had a couple of typos in it. He just thought this was very unprofessional. "I can't believe my tax dollars are paying for this kind of incompetence!" he stammered.
What I wanted to say was this: "Are you serious? I mean, with all the problems in the country right now (the Vietnam War was dragging on; President Richard Nixon was about to get impeached, etc., etc.), you're upset because you got a letter with a misspelled word and a comma out of place? C'mon -- get real, buddy!"