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Gregory Holmes stands outside his office. Holmes is the new district manager at the Social Security Administration's Chattanooga offices.

Gregory Holmes brings a scientific approach to helping Chattanooga's senior and disabled population.

After earning a degree in botany from the University of Tennessee, Holmes interviewed with the Social Security Administration in 1991 about a job and quickly discovered his disciplined approach was well suited for one of the biggest federal government agencies. Two decades after joining SSA as a claims representative, the 45-year-old former botanist is managing the Social Security offices in Chattanooga, Cleveland and Athens, Tenn.

"You almost have to apply a scientific method to a [Social Security] claim as you go through the process of each application from start to finish," said Holmes, who was promoted this summer to district manager for Social Security in Chattanooga. "The claim representatives that are most successful are those that are well organized and focused in their approach."

But dealing with thousands of Social Security applicants and recipients every year is far different than any science lab.

"There's never a dull moment and always something different and challenging," Holmes said.

In Chattanooga, Holmes oversees a 53-person staff in Chattanooga, which is down by more than 10 employees from the number of SSA employees in Chattanooga three years ago. Budget cuts have put a hiring freeze on SSA staff additions, so Holmes and other Social Security officials urge persons to visit Social Security online at

On average, 41 percent of the local SSA traffic comes from people on the Web. But 1,155 people still visit in some way the Chattanooga Social Security office in East Brainerd.

Last week, the office processed 124 new requests for retirement income, 56 requests for Medicare only and 157 applications for SSA disability benefits. Disability eligibility is determined by a state agency in Nashville, but the local office processes the paperwork for such claims, Holmes said.

The Chattanooga office and its related branches in Cleveland and Athens serve residents in 10 Southeast Tennessee counties and three in North Georgia.

In the 13-county area served by the Chattanooga district, 205,711 people receive Supplement Security Income benefits. Collectively, such people are paid $210 million in SSA benefits a year, according to Social Security Regional Commissioner Michael Grochowski.

For all the challenge of managing dozens of employees who help hundreds of thousands of people, Holmes said he still gets the most satisfaction out of helping eligible people qualify and sign up for SSI benefits. While politicians debate reforming Social Security, benefits paid by the program still help more than half of all seniors stay out of poverty, Holmes said.

"Oftentimes, a widow wondering how she is going to make it finds out she will be getting more in survivor benefits than she thought, and those moments make it all worthwhile," he said.