After a 21-month shutdown, Social Security field offices are slowly reopening for employees and the public. During the office closings forced by the pandemic, Social Security Administration (SSA) employees were working from home. Since March 2020, SSA field offices have been mostly closed to the public, or open by appointment for “dire-needs” only, which generated criticism from both taxpayers and Congress. Senior leadership returned to work earlier this month, and employees will start returning to their offices beginning January 3. However, the COVID-19 omicron variant and other factors could push back the reentry date for SSA employees.
“The SSA has released a 19-page document outlining its return to work plan, but beyond the proposed date for employees to go back to the office, specifics are vague as to how this will actually work,” says Nash Disability Law attorney Dan Rosen. Social Security describes the phased re-entry as an “evaluation period.” The agency, once resistant to telework, will allow some employees to continue to work from home, but it is unclear which SSA functions will be conducted this way. The agency also says it will be “phasing in” its plans to allow walk-in service at the offices. What this specifically means for Social Security customers is unclear at this time.
SSA records show that for retirees and Medicare beneficiaries, claims processing has not been affected during the office shutdown. But for disabled Americans, it is a different story. Hearings have been held mostly by phone, which means that claimants have not had the benefit of explaining their health problems and difficulties to an administrative law judge (ALJ) in person. The plan does not detail exactly if, how, or when in-person hearings will resume.
In addition, there has been a significant decline in benefit awards. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards are down 10% and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) awards are down 18%. Nash Attorney Tom Nash notes that “many disabled workers lack easy access to the internet or the ability to contact Social Security, which can be made more difficult due to physical or mental impairments. It is both sad and unfortunate that those who rightfully have earned disability benefits are being short-changed.”
The SSA will be facing some tough challenges in the months ahead, including bargaining with The American Federation of Government Employees, the union which represents 43,000 SSA employees, over the reopening plans; the lack of a permanent head of the agency (the Biden administration has yet to nominate a Social Security Commissioner); and overcoming budget cuts imposed by Congress.
At Nash Disability Law, we are watching these developments closely. As this story continues to unfold, we will keep you up-to-date in this newsletter.