Social Security Disability Wait Times Soar Even Higher as the Backlog Balloons

February 4, 2024

Winning Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits has always been a long and difficult grind. For Americans who have disabilities, wait times for appeal hearings have been frustratingly long for some time, and they have gotten worse, reaching record highs.

The time it takes for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to process even initial applications has soared to unacceptable levels. According to the SSA’s own data, in the late 2010s it took the agency on average about 120 days to render a decision for an initial application. In December of last year, the average wait time had soared to 228 days—more than seven months!

It is not only initial applications that are bogged down. The first step in appealing a denied claim—reconsideration by the SSA—is also currently taking an average of seven months.

If reconsideration is denied (which is usually the case) it takes another 15 months on average to get to the next step, an appeal hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge.

Tragically, according to federal data, about 10,000 Americans die each year while their applications for disability benefits are slogging through the system. Chicago disability lawyer Tom Nash observes that, “almost everybody—claimants, family members and health professionals—asks a very simple, good question about the Social Security Disability process: ‘Why is it so hard to get and why does it take so long?’ This is a question which has been asked each and every year I have been helping people with these situations since 1978. This is the worst I have ever seen.”

With the soaring wait times for disability decisions, the SSA’s caseload of pending claims has ballooned. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, around 600,000 applicants were awaiting initial determinations on their benefit applications. In 2023, that backlog shot up to more than one million applicants.

Social Security officials say the delays and backlog are due to a stingy Congress that has left the agency chronically underfunded and understaffed.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, the SSA’s budget has shrunk by 17 percent since 2010, accounting for inflation, while the number of beneficiaries it serves has increased by 22 percent.

We at Nash Disability Law have long believed that it is time for Congress to adequately fund the SSA, and that the agency must step up and deliver better service to the millions of Americans who rely on the Social Security benefits they paid for and have rightfully earned.

While Social Security has no time limits to decide your case and can take as long as it wants, there are steps you can take to improve your claim and avoid adding unnecessary delays to the already over-long process.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (a nonprofit research organization), your first best move is to hire a skilled disability attorney, which increases your likelihood of earning benefits.

A 2017 Government Accounting Office (GAO) study supported this advice. The study found that if a Social Security Disability claimant had a representative when they attended their disability hearing, they were nearly three times more likely to be allowed benefits than someone who had no representation at all.

Applying for disability benefits isn’t as easy as filling out a few forms and then receiving your first check. The system is complex and confusing. Because of that, an overwhelming number of initial applications are denied.

The Social Security Disability lawyers at Nash Disability Law understand how the entire process works and can determine which of two disability programs you may qualify for, help determine what evidence is the most important, and present the best possible case to the Social Security Administration.

Additionally, we encourage you to:

If you are considering filing for disability benefits or if you have been turned down for benefits, contact our Chicago Social Security Disability attorneys. We work on a contingency fee basis, which means we only get paid if you win your case, and our fee is capped by law.