In the face of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security closed all of its more than 1,200 field offices. The field offices reopened in April 2022, but Social Security is still struggling to properly serve the American people and return to pre-pandemic levels of functioning.
Data the Social Security Administration (SSA) recently provided to Congress shows that nearly 20% of the field offices have had 40 or more customers in line on multiple days. There have been reports that people have slept in line outdoors all night at some field offices to get a favorable place in line the next morning.
This is especially troublesome for our most at-risk population—people with disabilities. Although the lengthy office closures caused applications for disability benefits to plummet (the data shows that Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards to workers who developed disabilities fell 15% last year in addition an 11% drop in 2020), the average wait time to process initial disability decisions now stands at an all-time high of 198 days.
By yet another measure—the number of people helped by Social Security—customer service at field offices has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
About 43 million visitors were served annually before COVID-19 hit. By the SSA’s own most recent calculations, it is estimated that this number will drop to about 25 million this year—a 42% decline. But even before the pandemic, customer service at Social Security offices was deteriorating because scores of field offices had been closed in budget cuts.
Although Social Security is encouraging people to get Social Security assistance by phone or the internet, Americans with disabilities rely on in-person meetings more than others needing service from the SSA.
As a group, people with disabilities are less likely to have internet access and even phones. Furthermore, when you apply for disability benefits, you are required to turn over driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and other documents, which has to be done in person.
Social Security says it has been struggling due to staffing shortages and insufficient budgets. Acknowledging “delays in service and long waits for disability decisions,” the Social Security Administration has asked for an extra $800 million in funding.
The plunge in service has caught the attention of Congress. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has pressed the SSA to provide details about when the agency will return to pre-pandemic levels of staffing and numbers of customers served.
She also asked for details of how Social Security will improve its customer service. Only time will tell whether the attention from Congress and the additional money (if they get it) will bolster Social Security’s customer service.