Many federal agencies continue to fight backlogs as they dig out from pandemic shutdowns and two years of limited staffing.
Having agencies like the Social Security Administration open in person again is welcome and I am pleased to see progress being made on getting caught up, however, I continue to hear the frustration of Arkansans every day who are working through bureaucratic processes that, unfortunately, are taking longer to resolve than in prior years.
This struggle is apparent when we look at the numbers for the two federal agencies that handle requests for military records. The National Archives and Records Administration and the National Personnel Records Center have received more than 350,000 new requests in the last four months. Previously these agencies would have been able to manage the increase, but these new cases come amid their efforts to respond to those it accumulated during the pandemic, leaving them with 499,000 pending requests. For veterans and caregivers waiting for records to obtain benefits or services, that is an overwhelming number they’d rather not be buried deeply within.
Unfortunately, the situation at other federal agencies is very similar. Backlogs at the IRS can have a ripple effect on other processes as taxpayers need data from the agency for everything from small business loans to immigration applications.
The reality is we expect these challenges to continue, especially as staffing remains a hurdle in the public and private sectors. But across the board, there are things we can all do to help if we need federal services.
The most important thing right now is to plan ahead. This is especially true with international travel. Although the Passport Agency made incredible strides to work through its pandemic backlog, it still takes up to three times longer to get a passport than it did in 2019 – an average of five to seven weeks for an expedited passport and eight to eleven weeks for standard processing. It is possible to get an in-person appointment for emergencies, but the Arkansas Passport Center has limited availability and cannot accept walk-in visitors.
Another key is to get things right on the front end. Whether Arkansans are filing a tax return, a VA claim or applying for a passport, every agency tells my office cases needing changes or additional information are taking much longer. We’re seeing this in tax returns where mailed 2021 returns with no errors or additional verification take at least five months. However, amended returns don’t even have a timeline and the IRS says it won’t be able to provide updates on these until mid-October.
For veterans, it a good idea to get help from an accredited veterans service officer before you file a claim. Having that process accurately completed on the front end can shave valuable months, and sometimes years, off of processing.
As always, Natural State residents who run into a federal bureaucratic roadblock should feel free to reach out to my office for assistance. In the coming days I’ll be highlighting some of the ways we’ve helped Arkansans recently on my social media pages, which I encourage you to follow. Whether under normal circumstances or coming out of an extraordinary time, my commitment to the people of Arkansas has always been and remains working on your behalf. My staff and I will continue that mission to serve and support you. We are grateful for that privilege.